American history is littered with great tragedies, but perhaps none have held onto our collective consciousness as strongly as the Civil War. It was an epic moral and ideological test for a young nation, and the fallout still trickles down over 150 years later (see: last year’s monument disputes, and the chaos at Charlottesville). I was very excited to see what the Lights, Theatre, Action! Players had to offer with Black Confederates. Unfortunately, I left St. Augustine’s Church with the belief that an opportunity for a quality drama had been squandered.
Black Confederates is set in March of 1865 at the rebel White House in Richmond, VA . As the military situation becomes increasingly dire for his upstart country, President Jefferson Davis (Larry Levinson) considers desperate measures in a bid to obtain victory. Namely, he will offer freedom to any black man within the Confederacy who agrees to enlist in its armed forces.
This decision becomes deeply personal, as Tom, one of the slaves who wants to serve (Jeffrey Charles Fleming), has grown up in the Davis household, and has a somewhat intimate relationship with Jefferson and his wife Varina (Elizabeth Drake). Before Tom leaves to join the defensive, he meets one more time with the Davises – a situation that boils over into a paternity dispute, and the revisit of a recent family tragedy.
closes July 28, 2018
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The performances are frustrating. The apparent age difference and interactions between Levinson and Drake make it quite difficult to believe that the two are playing a married couple. Levinson is generally fine in terms of his delivery, but he makes a few poor choices. His Jefferson Davis doesn’t carry a politician’s presence – slouching while seated, and when he’s grappling with his character’s deepest emotions, Levinson exaggerates and fluctuates in expressing these feelings. As Varina, Drake sounds perpetually flustered for a good chunk of the show. The show’s single use of the N-word erupts from Varina as she buckles under her anger and sadness. Instead of being a jarring reveal of deep-seated prejudice, the setup made it simply feel predictable.
Fleming always seems winded, and it’s unclear how much of this is a conscious choice. However, he gives a strong performance during an argument over the identity of his character’s father. All three had line troubles at various points, and there were too many moments of unnatural pauses that undercut the scenes’ underlying tension.
The script is melodramatic and overly expository. A lot of historical facts are unnaturally crammed into the dialogue, along with heavily forced reveals about the characters. Especially disorienting are the play’s not-so-subtle allusions to the French Revolution, the Roman Empire, and the Castro family. The first scene ends with a rendition of “La Marseillaise”, the second has Jefferson deliver a speech paraphrasing bits of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the third closes with Tom emulating Che Guevara, insisting that his name is now “General Gabriel”. I suppose the playwright and director are somehow trying to compare the Confederate struggle with these respective historical movements. If so, their message is a complete mystery to me.
The structure and dialogue in each scene were so similar, I questioned whether the actors were committing mistakes, or if the writing is just terribly redundant.
The production may have benefited from a proper stage, allowing for concealed entrances and exits. Rather, in a small, square room in St. Augustine’s Church, we saw Jefferson Davis wait completely in sight of the audience before returning to the scene. The lighting was perfectly adequate until the final scene, when the room is bathed in a disorienting red light which carries through to the show’s conclusion.
The American Civil War is an epic event, and its stories deserve to be told in a nuanced manner. Black Confederates fails to adhere to this ideal, often to its detriment.
Black Confederates by James F. Bruns . Directed by David Allen Schmidt . Featuring: Elizabeth Drake, Jeffrey Charles Fleming, Larry Levinson . Presented at Capital Fringe Festival 2018.
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