At the Rep, ‘Confederates’ skewers absurd expectations that Black women often face
In a Webster Groves rehearsal room one recent morning, theater director Elizabeth Carter told two actors that it’s OK to be funny — even as they performed a play about the serious burdens often placed upon Black women.
“This is the whole thing we’re going to be playing with, the edge of the comedy versus the edge of the truth,” Carter said, “and we’re going to keep dancing back and forth on where we fall on that line.”
She advised Tiffany Oglesby, who plays an enslaved woman during the Civil War, and Xavier Scott Evans, who plays her brother, that their portrayals needn’t be strictly earnest.
“We don’t want another ‘12 Years a Harriet Django,” Carter added, playfully mashing together titles of films about American slavery.
This weekend the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will become just the third theater to perform “Confederates” by Dominique Morisseau. Performances begin Saturday at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in Webster Groves. The Rep is producing the show in association with the theater that commissioned the play, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“Confederates” combines two time periods to tell the stories of Sara, an enslaved woman who insists on finding her own way to freedom, and current-day political science professor Sandra, who seeks a meaningful investigation into an offensive photo that someone posted on her office door.
Elements of the two timelines blend together, as the play observes that Black women have had to deal with similar issues for many years.
“What we’re really going after is that we’re on repeat, and everything just continues to recycle and recycle and recycle,” Williams said before a recent rehearsal. “This is not far removed, this is happening right now.”
Morisseau is a MacArthur Fellow (the distinction often called a genius grant) who has written insightfully about the intersection of race and class in the industrial Midwest. She also raised her profile on Broadway by writing the book for the popular musical “Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations,” which is now on a national tour. The Black Rep will begin a production of “Skeleton Crew,” part of Morisseau’s celebrated trilogy of plays about Detroit, in late March.
In her introduction to “Confederates,” Morisseau likens the experience of living with racism, sexism and classism to “living through a farce.” An opening monologue references other fictional portrayals of American slavery, including Jeremy O’Harris’ “Slave Play” and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” two plays that also use a stylized approach to find dark humor in the African American experience.
“Confederates” depicts Sara and Sandra as they confront the expectations — sometimes unspoken, often contradictory — that the people around them place on their backs.
“When we look at Black women in leadership, and I can look at all of my mentors, they are all dealing with the same thing,” Carter said, seated in a green room before rehearsal. “It’s the misogynoir of being attacked for being audacious enough to be a leader, and unapologetically so,” she said.
“So as a woman,” Carter added, paraphrasing an attitude she’s often encountered, “and a Black woman on top of that, how dare you think you can really be the expert on anything?”
Actors Oglesby and Williams nodded their heads in agreement.
“It's just bizarre to be put in situations where you have to shrink yourself. You have to change who you are. You have to dim your humanity. Your humanity is not enough. And so it's weird, it's bizarre, it's crazy. It doesn't make sense, and you have to laugh at the craziness of it sometimes,” Oglesby said.
The Rep’s artistic director, Hana S. Sharif, has a longstanding relationship with Morisseau and produced some of her work in Baltimore before taking her current job.
Sharif attended the New York opening of “Confederates” last spring and saw onstage a dynamic she’s familiar with, as a Black woman who has been a leader at predominantly white institutions.
“I think we've all had the experience of doing everything we can, giving our best giving to everyone, and still having all that we have shared be somehow misaligned because of lack of context or understanding, or because how you show up isn't the way the person on the other side thought you should show up,” Sharif said.
“I think it will resonate deeply with all St. Louisans,” she added, “but in particular, I think for women of color it's really meaningful to see an often invisible history made real onstage.”