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Ashland Theater Review: "Confederates"

Confederates_Ashland_Theater.jpg
Jenny Graham
Erika Rose and Preston Butler III, on the stage for "Confederates," in Ashland, Oregon.

Confederates is a brilliant new drama that examines America’s race issues by showing the Civil War through the eyes of enslaved people. In its west coast premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this luminous play, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Nataki Garrett, the OSF artistic director, is a marvel of theatrical expertise.

A sterling cast of five portrays characters during the Civil War and the present, revealing highly nuanced personal issues that must be untangled in order to survive. In the present, we meet Sandra, a Black tenured professor at a mostly white university. Bianca Jones plays her with pride, dignity and strength. Erika Rose, as Sara, an enslaved field hand on a cotton plantation, is equally proud, dignified and strong.

The two time periods alternate with breathtaking speed, requiring quick costume changes by three of the actors. Preston Butler is a runaway who works with the Union Army, and in the present he’s a bright student who feels picked on by Sandra, his professor. Cindii Johnson’s LuAnne, the plantation owner’s house servant and concubine, spies on the field workers. At the university, she is a young Black instructor desperately hoping for tenure. Erica Sullivan alternates between the plantation’s southern belle who claims to be Sara’s friend, and then a disgruntled student aide to Sandra.

At the beginning of the play a projection of a shocking photo shows a Black wet nurse holding her breast to the mouth of a white baby. Later the photo becomes an important piece of evidence in a campus scandal.

This is the first play I’ve seen by Dominique Morisseau, but I truly believe she is destined to be the next August Wilson.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.