by Isabel Echavarria
Black Confederates by James F. Bruns and directed by David Allen Schmidt depicts a conversation between Jefferson Davis, played by Larry Levinson, and his wife Varina Davis, played by Elizabeth Drake, regarding the Confederacy’s need to enlist enslaved individuals as soldiers toward the end of the Civil War. During the course of their discussion, Varina Davis discovers that one of their slaves, Thomas, played by Jeffrey Fleming, will be leaving to go fight for the Confederacy. In this fictional account, Davis tells us that he has freed Thomas so Thomas can go fight.
The show consists of three different scenes depicting the reactions Varina has to the news of Thomas’ freedom and departure, and three different interactions between Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis and Thomas when he arrives to say goodbye. A central element to the conversation between the characters is the death of the Davis’s son Joe a year earlier and Thomas’ relationship with the boy and the family.
The play takes place at the Confederate White House in Richmond in 1865. The stage was simple, with two chairs on both sides of the stage for Jefferson Davis and his wife who would begin each act. Thomas arrives about halfway through to say goodbye. Each act develops more conflict between the characters, which can be seen in the change in Thomas’s costumes.
The topic of this play is a sensitive and painful part of United States history. When creating a play regarding a sensitive subject it is very important to be conscious of the perspective used to convey the story. No matter the intention of the play, the voice used affects the way the story is perceived.
I felt that certain elements to the play were not developed enough, including the character of Thomas. Black Confederates focussed almost completely on the complexity of the emotions and situation faced by Jefferson Davis and Varina Davis, brushing over Thomas’s side of the story. The play also portrayed Jefferson Davis as reasonable while explaining the state of the nation to his wife. The intention of this play may have been to make the audience uncomfortable. In fact, when you walk into the theater Dixie is playing. Whatever the intention, I was personally uncomfortable with the portrayal of Jefferson Davis and the very holistic approach to depicting Jefferson Davis’s humanity while Thomas’s voice was suppressed made me uncomfortable.