‘Confederates’ Off Broadway Review: Dominique Morisseau Suggests College Is the New Plantation

Playwright delivers a lecture on racism in record time

Photo: Monique Carboni

It’s only March, but already this year New York theatergoers have been treated to plays like Aleshea Harris’s “On Sugarland” and Joshua Harmon’s “Prayer for the French Republic.” These are big plays, running around three hours each, with big casts that create vibrant families and communities on stage to tell important stories. We not only learn, we experience.

Dominique Morisseau has a lot to teach us in her new play, “Confederates,” which opened Sunday at the Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, and she gives herself about 90 minutes to do the job.

During the Civil War, the slave Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd) bandages up a wounded runaway slave turned Union soldier (Elijah Jones) who patronizes her to “stay safe” on the plantation. Sara argues, “I want to die like a man too.” Later in “Confederates,” Sara is sexually propositioned by the slave owner’s ditzy daughter Miss Sue (Kenzie Ross), who, like so many white women of her class, indulges in lesbianism. (This is what’s called the “hetero gaze,” where LGBTQ is used as short-hand to connote decadence, perversion or oppression.) Sara also gets into heated arguments with another slave, LuAnne (Andrea Patterson), who functions as the master’s concubine.

The above story is told in a few scenes that take up about 45 minutes. They are interspersed with the other half of “Confederates,” which tells the story of a tenured college professor, Sandra (Michelle Wilson), recently subjected to the indignation of a having a racist photograph posted on her office door.

Sandra can’t escape getting into heated arguments with her colleagues and students: there’s a male student, Malik (Jones), who feels she favors female students; an instructor without tenure, Jade (Patterson), who charges Sara with seeing her as competition; and a ditzy assistant, Candice (Ross, again proving she’s no Butterfly McQueen), who must have scored around 200 on her SATs. Morisseau takes a page from “Gone With the Wind.” She makes characters of one race the butt of all her jokes.

Sandra is a very quick learner. After her talks with Malik and Jade, she gives the student an A-plus on his rewritten paper and she recommends the instructor for tenure. Sandra comes to regret both those decisions in about two minutes of stage time.

In addition to racism and sexism, Sara and Sandra share the burden of not being able to have children. Lloyd and Wilson carry their respective characters’ many burdens with restive aplomb.

Morisseau is at her best with the play’s many verbal fights. Only George Bernard Shaw can make us change our sympathies faster. Handled with much less finesse is the easy symmetry of the past and the present stories presented here. Stori Ayes’s blunt direction wisely emphasizes the radical jumps in time with amusing and flashy costume changes. Ari Fulton is the designer.

Before giving Malik that A-plus, Sandra criticizes his paper, saying, “I think you can draw more concise lines between corporate America and the plantation.” Morisseau has no such problem drawing those lines. She gets the job done in record time.