Morisseau’s pieces always come from her distinctive voice, from “Paradise Blue” to “Detroit ’67,” to “Pipeline” and “Blood at the Root”, among others and of course as the book writer for the Broadway musical on the Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud-The Life and Times of the Temptations,” but her newest work “Confederates” premiering at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, at 480 W 42nd St., is not her usual bill of fare. There is something thrilling about watching a work by a gifted playwright that doesn’t fit into her past molds. Morisseau, a Residency 5 Playwright at Signature Theatre, has decided to create a play focused on the racism placed on Black women and gives the audience to characters which would seem to be in completely opposite life situations, but find that they face the same issues and prejudice.
The audience meets tenured Political Science professor Sandra, who has been the victim of a racial attack and is attempting to find out who did it. And we meet Sara, a Black slave on the plantation, whose brother Abner has runaway and joined the Army to fight against slavery. Sara is a Black woman, who though she is working in the fields and has an oppressed existence, still has a fire in her that seeks to help and protect her brother and she has a determination to fight and be free. She also knows how to play the game of the slave that seems to go along with what White people expect of her. Morisseau skillfully takes us between the centuries and using only a cast of five talented actors, takes us from time period to time period with three actors playing dual roles and nailing them!
Morisseau truly shows how much this college professor, a person who would be looked at in our society as someone who has MADE IT, has actually not! When she is the victim of racism, it’s up to her to investigate and find out what happened because institutional racism masks itself very well. It’s also interesting what she finds out as she investigates. Sandra finds out exactly how, not only her Black students view her negatively, but also how her Black female colleague perceives her in a jealous manner. It’s so interesting how the way that slavery instilled in us to fight to pull each other down, is still alive and well even in this day and time. Meanwhile Sara is living in a time when institutional racism meant that we weren’t people as much as we were someone else’s property. We were there to be used by the White master in whatever way he saw fit. It’s interesting how Morisseau brings up the relationship between Sara, a Black slave as a child and Missy Sue, the plantation owner’s daughter. Missy Sue taught Sara how to read, something that was forbidden. Sara falsely believed that she and Missy Sue were friends, but she painfully finds out differently. In addition to a storyline on these two women, Morisseau lets us see through the eyes of Malik, a Black student at the University, the struggle he has to be better than everyone else for a scholarship, though he realizes that Black men are treated like slaves in corporate America. He also feels that Sandra, as a Black woman is bias against him as a Black male. She lets him know, however, that he has a great mind and because of that she has to make sure his work is airtight. Though he gets a B on a paper, she gives him a chance to make it tighter and hand it in again the next day.
There are things that everyone knows happened during slavery, with the master taking slaves to his bed and having them in the house for his pleasure. That is the case with the slave LuAnne. Slaves like LuAnne had to endure being desired and taken by the master. They used their bodies to live a more comfortable life than the field slaves, but of course that came with a great price of being ostracized by their people. LuAnne lets Sara know that Missy Sue has feelings for her like Master has for LuAnne and that she should use that to her advantage. There is definitely a lot going on in this production, but it all works together and again helps the audience to see how issues of the past connect to those that people still face a century later. While stories must come to an end, the question is, what ending does a playwright chose to give to show a truth. In the end Morisseau gives a stunning conclusion to Sara’s situation and a sadly typical ending to Sandra’s problem. Black women share a deep connection that bonds us together, but also makes us stronger. The parallels are POWERFUL!
The cast in this production is mesmerizing and includes Michelle Wilson as Sandra; Kristolyn Lloyd as Sara; Elijah Jones as Abner/Malik; Andrea Patterson as LuAnne/Jade and Kenzie Ross as Missy Sue/Candice. The play also has interesting direction by Stori Ayers. “Confederates” will play through April 24 only!