Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, the second play of her Signature Theatre Residency 5, is a clever, but overly talky dissertation on race, power and family. She offers the audience parallel stories alternating between the Civil War era and modern day academia.
The contemporary plot involves Sandra (Michelle Wilson, solid), a Black political science professor who is the victim of a racist insult. A period photograph of a slave wet nurse, white infant attached to her breast, was altered to superimpose her head on the slave’s. Finding the culprit spurs Sandra to think about the precariousness of being a Black woman in academia.
She discovers that she can trust no one and suspects those around her, including Malik, a student (Elijah Jones) whose term paper comparing modern corporate America to the plantation system she found lacking; her office assistant, Candace (Kenzie Ross) who is subtly sabotaging Sandra; and Jade, a younger fellow professor (Andrea Patterson), also Black who is a fount of gossipy information about the goings-on at the school.
Sandra’s Civil War counterpart is the feisty Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd, a powerhouse performer), a slave who has committed the crime of being literate and is about to become a pro-Union spy under the tutelage of her brother, Abner (Jones, in a dual role) whose war wound she is tending to when we first see her.
The ditzy daughter of her white master, Missy Sue (Ross, again) spouts naïve abolitionist sentiments, all the while pushing Sara into a lesbian affair.
Sara is also put upon by the house slave, Luanne (also Patterson) whose go-with-the-flow philosophy includes sleeping with the master.
The shifts between the past and the present are handled with deft costume changes (designed by Ari Fulton) and subtle shifts in the lighting designed by Amith Chandrashaker and Emma Deane), helped by expert, turn on a dime acting under the direction of Stori Ayers.
Upon this framework of two worlds separated by more than 150 years Morisseau investigates the continuing battle for racial equality as shared at great length by the two central figures of Confederates. Too often the dialogue becomes diatribe, albeit well-acted diatribe.
And, yes, the perpetrator of the offensive photo shopped image is found out.
Rachel Hauck’s set, an arcade with a balcony supported by white columns, evokes both the portico of a plantation house and an Ivy League college building, looming over a raised central area where most of the action occurs.
Confederates (extended through April 24, 2022)
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit ticketservicesW@signaturetheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission