Rooting one narrative branch in contemporary academia, and another on a cotton plantation in the antebellum South, Dominique Morisseau’s satire Confederates renders a frank, witty, and delightfully twisted exploration of racial biases, be they unconscious or firmly resolved.
The play, directed by Stori Ayers in a riveting new production at Mosaic, derives some suspense from the anticipation that its parallel plotlines might connect. But whether or not the individual stories of embattled college professor Sandra (Nikkole Salter) and enslaved rebel Sara (Deidre Staples) actually meet, their experiences as Black women, though separated by centuries, are still intertwined.
Even Nadir Bey’s evocative set design suggests as much, combining Sandra’s office and Sara’s plantation cabin within the same space. No walls separate the present from the past. Sandra’s seemingly successful modern-day life as a tenured professor exists as part of the legacy of rebels like Sara.
Some troll on Sandra’s campus means to shove that legacy down her throat, posting on her office door an altered photo of an enslaved Black woman suckling a white baby.
Sandra’s loose investigation into the matter proceeds through a series of meetings in her office, well-acted one-on-one discussions that generally devolve into tense, funny verbal sparring matches.
One of her Black students, Malik (Joel Ashur), dissatisfied with the grade on his last paper, accuses Sandra of showing a preferential bias towards the women in class. Her insistently P.C. student assistant Candice (Caro Dubberly), who’s white, hints that some students believe it’s racial bias that colors Sandra’s preferences for certain students.
And Sandra’s faculty colleague Jade (Tamieka Chavis), who’s Black, questions whether Sandra will pay any loyalty to the sisterhood when casting a vote on Jade’s prospective tenure.
In one emotionally fraught meeting after another, Salter both conducts and reacts persuasively opposite Ashur, Dubberly, and Chavis, in scenes that spiral out of Sandra’s control.
The disputes, and the language each character uses to wage their battles, ring compellingly true of current discourse, while the pacing and performances add well-judged comic exaggeration, especially in Dubberly’s enigmatic turn.
Chavis also nails the comic target in Jade and Sandra’s crackling confrontation. Then, stripping off that character, steps into the shoes of plantation slave Luanne, alternately creating a moving dramatic portrayal of a woman who has accepted lying under her master if it keeps her from the agony of toiling in the fields picking cotton.
Throughout the show, scenes on campus and at the plantation alternate fluidly. Supporting cast members pass between Sandra’s office and Sara’s cabin, stopping to switch costumes amid the cotton bushes surrounding the stage. Salter and Staples, however, stay set as Sandra and Sara, each the center of their story. Sara’s scenes differ from Sandra’s, though — she keeps a tight rein on all her interactions.
Strong-willed Sara isn’t built for taking the Luanne option on the plantation, either. She’s plotting an escape to freedom with her brother Abner (Ashur), who ran away to join the Union Army.
But, for the siblings’ plan to succeed, Sara will need to play a potentially deadly, and definitely kinky, spy game with plantation mistress Missy Sue (Dubberly), who considers Sara a childhood friend. Self-proclaimed progressive Missy Sue even taught Sara how to read, an ability that could open a door to liberation, or could get Sara killed.
Racial bias isn’t fodder for debate on the plantation, it literally rules every aspect of Sara’s life. Yet, the indignities she suffers can’t dim her innate, shrewd intelligence, as conveyed by Staples, a consistently outstanding performer on the D.C. theater scene who’s marvelous here.
Even in stillness, Staples projects the fire Sara carries that will not be extinguished, that will, in fact, light a path to women like Sandra and Jade. “We ain’t gotta die slaves,” Sara declares, speaking the truth for then, now, and forever.
Confederates (★★★★★) runs through Nov. 26 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $42 to $70, with economy ticket options for each performance. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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