As is the case with many of her plays, Dominique Morisseau is not afraid to depict what many are hesitant to say out loud. “Confederates” is no exception. Tackling racism, sexism, slavery, and hate crime, Morisseau manages to turn these topics into not only powerful theatrical material but also, at times, comedy. “Confederates” is a hard-hitting, edgy play that amazingly gets you laughing even in the midst of the realization that these issues are all too real—and therein lay the true magnificence of this production.
…this is an extremely powerful play and the ending may just blow you away.
Mosaic Theater’s audacious season features a lineup that explores cross-cultural dramatic worlds along with somewhat controversial subjects. “Confederates” dives deep into both. Prompted by a photoshopped image of a bare-chested, enslaved wet nurse breastfeeding a white baby, the play jumps back and forth in time, between the present-day world of Sandra, an increasingly disheartened Black professor working at a predominantly White university, and Sara, an enslaved Civil War-era woman who dreams of freedom and equality on all fronts—racial and gender.
Sara’s (Deidre Staples) story centers on her relationship with her brother, Abner (Joel Ashur), a runaway slave now fighting for the Union; the master/slave turned quasi-lesbian dynamic between her and Missy Sue (Caro Dubberly); and her own “undercover” efforts to help freedom’s cause and hopefully, one day escape the shackles of her bondage.
Fast forward to the present and Sandra’s (Nikkole Salter) story reveals the complex layers of the society in which we live today. Accused of coddling Black students, giving preference to her female students, and spitefully blocking her colleague Jade’s (Tamieka Chavis) tenure, Sandra seemingly cannot win. Even the BLM shirt she wears to class serves as a catalyst for more accusations, controversy, and confusion about who she genuinely is. All the while, Sandra is on a mission to figure out who put the offensive photoshopped image on her door.
Both women are at times plagued by their heritage and also empowered by it. Freedom may mean different things for these two women living eras apart, but ultimately, it comes at very similar costs.
Stori Ayers directs this production. She previously directed the world premiere of “Confederates” at NYC’s Signature Theatre. Her incredible fluency with this piece certainly shows. Because the movement from one world to another can only be rather abrupt, at least in this context, rather than blurring the lines, Ayers accentuates them and turns the segues into delightfully entertaining interludes. The double casting is purposeful and penetrating. Joel Ashur does a tremendous job of playing both the highly spirited Mailk, a disgruntled student, and also Abner. Tamieka Chavis beautifully inhabits the roles of the enslaved Luanne and Jade, the sassy professor. While Caro Dubberly, in a hilarious and, on occasion, scene-stealing performance, does double duty as Missy Sue and Candice, another somewhat disillusioned student of Sandra’s.
Salter and Staples have a difficult task here. They embody the two central characters, but also implicitly personify a collective, historical response to the hostile systems that Black women are forced to navigate. Both actors are wonderfully watchable in their roles and as individuals bearing the weight of the broken parts of their respective societies.
Nadir Bey’s dualistic set design echoes the themes of the play. The co-mingling of eras symbolically represented by cotton plants and sticky notes is genius. The fluidity of the set, in conjunction with John. D. Alexander’s lighting design and David Lamont Wilson’s sound design, helps add another layer of momentum to an already fast-paced, high-energy play. Two worlds, one hundred and fifty years apart, two diverse sets of characters, all in 90 minutes. It is certainly an endeavor requiring all production elements to be on point and then some. This team does not disappoint. Moyenda Kulemeka’s clever iterations of costumes that easily pull double duty are something to behold in and of themselves.
All I can say is this is an extremely powerful play and the ending may just blow you away. Curious? You should be.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Mature language and themes, depictions of slavery, and partial nudity.
“Confederates” has been extended through November 26, 2023 presented by Mosaic Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.