There’s something exciting about seeing history through the eyes of the losers and villains, it’s something about the dramatic tension between history being written by the victors and idea that eventually truth will out. Confederates, a new play by James F. Bruns making its debut at this year’s Fringe, attempts to recontextualize Civil War history with a focus on events that occurred just outside Washington, D.C from the viewpoint of members of the Confederate leadership.
Set in a farmhouse outside the capital proper, Confederates focuses on the debate between General Stonewall Jackson (Richard Fiske) and the civilian government of the Confederacy about whether or not to press his successful Valley Campaign into a direct attack on Washington. That sort of historical flashpoint, in which the course of current events could have taken a radically different direction, is a ripe and exciting potential source of drama. However, Bruns’ dry exposition, a strange plot choice about a sexual assault, and unfortunate exclusion of black voices and faces makes for a wasted opportunity.
Written by James F. Bruns
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The only time a black human being is mentioned by name in Confederates occurs during a monologue about day to day life in Jackson’s Virginia camp. Cliff Rooks, playing Jackson’s passionate aide-de-camp Sandie, walks to the edge of the stage and points out an unseen Jim Lewis, Jackson’s cook, remarking specifically how Lewis is not Jackson’s slave but his “good friend.” I gasped at this stunning act of whitewashing. And I wasn’t alone in the audience.
Jim Lewis existed. Jim Lewis was a slave. Whitewashers of Civil War history have often turned to the fact that he was not specially Jackson’s slave as sentimental justification for their relationship. This sounds like excellent material for a play about this particular moment of history, but Bruns does not give Lewis a face or voice. He’s offstage, unseen and unheard. Lewis is as erased from this narrative as so many would remove the atrocities done to his people from the American narrative.
If Bruns intends Confederates as a piece of educational theatre, or at least fictionalized historical drama, then he is presenting unfortunate misinformation and script digressions without giving us any substantive context. Brun’s script departs from the story of the potential attack on Washington in other frustrating ways. A large part of the Confederates plot concerns a scheme between Sandie and sly farmhouse resident Lucretia (confidently played by Meghan Landon) to use a trumped-up sexual assault charge against a nearby Union officer to rally the Confederacy in support of an attack on Washington, only to have the entire plotline dismissed in Bruns’ unfortunate stab at a creative play on the title of the opera Rape of Lucretia. I can find no historical reference to such a plot, and I found it strange that Bruns’ would throw in such salacious subject matter as a sexual assault plot when there must have been ample drama in a potential history changing attack on Washington, DC without that addition.
Production wise, Confederates design is moderate for Fringe. There is some good costume design, though the designer was uncredited. The acting is more passionate than professional. Fiske has some good moments as Jackson, and I appreciated Rooks’ energy. Landon too brings an interesting energy to hardcore Confederacy supporter Lucretia. Director Roland Branford Gomez stages the show around a large center table, which means most scenes involve actors chasing each other around it in moments of debate.
Confederates does itself and its audience a disservice by turning its attention from the story it seemingly wants to tell, especially when it turns away from the character of Jackson himself. Telling stories from the perspective of Confederate citizens is a valid and potentially thrilling theatrical pathway. However, in it’s current form, the play is a big missed opportunity.
Confederates – By James F. Bruns. Directed by Ronald Branford Gomez.l. Presented by Lights, Theatre, Action! . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
*Though documentation of the man’s life is spare, more about Jim Lewis can be found here.
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