The Saint Louis run of Confederates ends this weekend. This play by Dominique Morisseau is divided across time. Half set during the Civil War, half nowadays. The play’s set reinforces this divide, with flooring cut to a depth, like the earth has been rent asunder between these two halves. Sara, a southern slave turned Harriet Tubman like a Union spy, and Sandra, a tenured professor at a modern-day private university, are having parallel experiences of institutional racism, though they live 150 years apart. Confederates jumps back-and-forth in time to show us these two Black women and explore the bonds of racial and gender bias that still hold us all captive even now. Sara and Sandra are both fixed in and each anchor their respective times, but they are also accompanied by a trio of other actors who do double duty, playing different yet analogous characters in each time period. An antebellum photograph of an African-American slave women, bare breasted, suckling a white child is the impetus for this story. In modern times, Sandra finds a crudely photoshopped version of it, with her face tacked on to it, on her office door. At the ending, during a northern abolitionist meeting, a now free Sara takes the original photo from beneath her dress and proclaims the slave women as her mother, before defiantly baring her own breast to the audience. The house lights then darkened, to be soon replaced by annoying and heavy-handed spotlights trained upon the audience.
Covid seating practices were still evident, sort of, I guess. The galleries, the cheap seats, where we normally sit, were all closed. The audience had been crammed together in the orchestra section of the theater. All except for the front row, which was taped off. We ended up seated next to a pair of women who were somewhat miffed at having been pushed back one row, from their usual front row seats. Our leap from the back, next to them, did not aid their disposition. The Rep had instituted similar seating during the pandemic once before, but in that play the cast freely circulated among the audience, and we all wore masks. At first, I thought that this was the case here, but that was not it. In the end, I figured that it was some lame Covid procedure, designed simply to protect the cast from the audience and piss off some audience members, but who knows?
We saw this play’s first Midwest production. A year ago, Confederates was opening off-Broadway. Supplanting another Morisseau production, Skeleton Crew, the finale in her three-play cycle, the Detroit Project. It will be performing in town next month. Going into Confederates, I did not know anything about it and I did not have great expectations either. The Rep usually confines its more Avant guard, less mainstream elements of its season to its February offerings. Reserving the more plum calendar slots for shows that will have broader appeal, like their next play, Murder on the Orient Express. A production sure to reap the big box-office bucks that their many season subscribers from doctor-lawyer-land will surely provide. But, as a local reviewer proclaimed, Confederates was the show of the season. In order to accommodate that show’s larger house, I am sure that for Murder, we will be relegated back to our usual cheap seats. Denying us the same intimacy and live theater experience that we got this week.