Black women seek freedom then and now, in ‘Confederates’ at Mosaic Theater

Nikkole Salter and Deidre Staples command attention. They are the heart and soul of this production.

Dominique Morisseau does not tiptoe or tap-dance in Confederates. Presented by Mosaic Theater, her new play stomps confidently into an unflinching examination of history, race, class, gender, and the meaning of freedom. Prepare to be uncomfortable but thoroughly engaged.

Confederates tells the story of two Black women fighting for freedom 160 years apart. When the play opens, we meet Sandra (Nikkole Salter), a political science university professor grappling with having found on her office door a photo of her face on an enslaved woman’s body. Then we are thrust back in time to the Civil War, where the action centers on Sara (Deidre Staples), an enslaved woman destined to become a Union spy. Nikkole Salter and Deidre Staples command attention. They are the heart and soul of this production, which follows a successful premiere off-Broadway in 2022.

Joel Ashur as Abner and Deidre Staples as Sara in ‘Confederates.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

The story rapidly pivots between the two settings as each woman comes to grips with how she will achieve the freedom she deserves. Sara’s freedom is obviously liberation from enslavement. But she also craves escape from gender expectations about how she should go about securing her freedom. Sandra’s search for freedom resonates in contemporary terms: freedom from institutional racism, freedom from how institutions pit women against one another. As with Sara, Sandra’s freedom also has a gender component. You cannot look away from what unfolds.

Three actors who are double-cast populate Sara and Sandra’s storylines. Sara’s brother Abner (Joel Ashur), contraband with the Union Army, is also Malik, a student of Sandra’s. Missy Sue (Caro Dubberly), daughter of the plantation owner and childhood “friend” of Sara’s in the past, is also Sandra’s office assistant Candace. LuAnne (Tamieka Chavis), a house slave on the plantation, is also Sandra’s university colleague Jade. Directed with sure hands by Stori Ayers, this excellent trio is the glue holding together and binding the connections between Sara during the Civil War and the present. Ayers’ production moves at a fast pace, counting on Ashur, Dubberly, and Chavis to create seamless transitions to and from the Civil War. They meet the challenge with vivid and compelling performances.

Additionally, the production elements in Confederates are outstanding, especially the contributions of Moyenda Kulemeka’s meticulous costumes, Nadir Bey’s spare but inspired scene design, and David Lamont Wilson’s sound design, which amplified and illuminated transitions between scenes.

In Confederates, Dominique Morisseau locates the antecedents of the present in the past. She also documents another common thread between the past and the present: the steadfast and dogged resilience of Black women who fight against racism and sexism. It’s a stunning achievement. Throughout the play the parallels between then and now emerge organically and mirror one another across storylines and time.

TOP: Caro Dubberly as Candice and Nikkole Salter as Sandra; ABOVE: Nikkole Salter as Sandra and Tamieka Chavis as Jade in ‘Confederates.’ Photos by Chris Banks.

Morisseau’s challenging vision and storytelling in this work aren’t like any play about racism and its consequences that I’ve ever seen. The dialogue is fierce. The confrontations are withering. The surprises are potent. The messages are powerful. Confederates is the play Black women and all of us need today. Thank you, Dominique Morisseau, for reminding us to keep fighting for freedom, for ourselves and from ourselves.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.

Confederates plays through November 26, 2023, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($42–$70) online or from the Box Office at (202) 399-7993 x501 or [email protected] from 11 AM–5 PM Monday through Friday, or two hours prior to a performance.

The program for Confederates is online here.

COVID Safety: Mosaic Theater aligns its safety protocols with those of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masking is recommended but is now optional.

Confederates by Dominique Morisseau

Nikkole Salter as Sandra; Deidre Staples as Sara; Joel Ashur as Abner/Malik; Caro Dubberly as Missy Sue/Candice; Tamieka Chavis as Luanne/Jade

Directed by Stori Ayers; Scenic Designer, Nadir Bey; Lighting Designer, John D. Alexander; Costume Designer, Moyenda Kulemeka; Sound Designer, David Lamont Wilson; Props Designer, Deb Thomas; Projections Designer, Deja Collins; Violence and Intimacy Choreographer, Sierra Young; Stage Manager, Shayna O’Neill.

Confederates Reflection Series: Each performance is followed by post-performance reflections and conversations about the themes of the play with over 25 local Black women arts and culture leaders responding to the question of what freedom means to them. Post-show talkbacks are subject to change without prior notice. Information about scheduled appearances is online here.


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