By David Walters
Dominique Morisseau’s play Confederates took a different path in the telling than her previous plays, stretching to utilize comedy to fully land the seriousness (in much the same way that Tambo and Bones did). I understand her intent, but this production did not live up to its potential, at times taking itself too seriously when it could have gone further into comedic farce making the darker moments that much stronger.
Ms. Morisseau presents us with two worlds, a southern plantation during the civil war and a modern-day university political science professor’s office. She links those two worlds as one, through characters, mirroring dialogue, and theme, seeking freedom in every encounter while injecting humor and pathos that flows back and forth through time.
What I believe Confederates is trying to accomplish is a reckoning between our history of slavery as experienced by women of both the past and the present, and choosing the politics of academia to make that link. It’s a link seeking to connect freedom. The link is there and I can see it, but it’s not yet fully formed.
The play was initially co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, and Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis. The focus of the commission was to write about African Americans in the Civil War. The project was sparked by an article in The Atlantic, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” (worth a read)
In this production at Signature Theatre, the director, Stori Ayers, provided some imaginative staging utilizing the plantation pillars of the set, and costumer Ari Fulton’s creative rip-away fast changes for the double-cast characters that flipped between one age and the next, several times incorporating modern into period and period into modern costume choices. This mingling builds to the melding of the two worlds at the end of the play. Ultimately though, I don’t feel she completely understood how this play wants to tell its story.
The actors work hard to lift the material, imbibing it with humor when it’s uncomfortable, and personal conviction when called upon. Each of them does a bang-up job in their roles, often flipping immediately between periods without hesitation. They are the driving force in this show’s current form.
The music incorporated into the production not only sets a tone but contributes in its content to the meaning and was something that I looked forward to as the play went along.
It feels that the storytelling still has miles to get before it sleeps, that there is more to be discovered, more boundaries to be pushed, more updraft to be applied to give the play lift, and more lightness to be cast to illuminate the darkness it wants to touch on.
And one note: Ms. Ayers, the actors deserve their bows for the work they put in. It will not take away from the message of the play, I promise.
Featuring: Elijah Jones, Kristolyn Lloyd, Andrea Patterson, Kenzie Ross, and Michelle Wilson
At Signature Theatre: The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
Scenic Design-Rachel Hauck; Costume Design-Ari Fulton; Co-Lighting Design-Amith Chandrashaker and Emma Deane; Co-Sound Design-Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys AKA “J. Keys”; Projection Design-Kate Freer
Now through April 24, 2022
Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
As always, this is just one man’s opinion in a world filled with them.