Tackling Race, Journalism and Viral Images in “Confederates”

“I think that people in this country – the people of good will, anyway – are aching for a real conversation about these very questions and I think maybe we can help them, you and I.”

So says Will, the main character and young black journalist of Suzanne Bradbeer’s award-winning play, CONFEDERATES, to his friend and source, Maddie, after she shares with him a controversial photo of her with a Confederate flag. In this gripping one-act play, Will tries to persuade Maddie, the white daughter of a presidential candidate, that he can be trusted to tell the story of her soon-to-be viral photo, released in an act of revenge by Maddie’s former boyfriend.

On Friday, Jan. 31, the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the UNC Department of Dramatic Art and PlayMakers hosted a reading of CONFEDERATES for about 50 guests in the Freedom Forum Conference Center, including students, faculty, friends of PlayMakers, and the playwright, Suzanne Bradbeer. The play was followed by a panel discussion about the themes in the play with Bradbeer, News & Observer political reporter Will Doran and senior journalism major Elliott Millner.

For the Center, the play was an amazing moment to explore a whole host of ethical and potential legal challenges faced by today’s journalists: how to handle sources we know; how to work in a field that faces tremendous financial pressures; how we talk or don’t talk about race in our work; how “cancel culture” derails conversations about our partisan times; and how the release of controversial images online can wreck lives, encourage death threats, and spark lawsuits.

The conversations were immeasurably bolstered by the performances of Vivienne Benesch, PlayMakers’ artistic director (Stephanie); Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes from UNC’s Professional Actors Training Program (Will); and Tori Jewell from UNC’s Professional Actors Training Program (Maddie). The reading was produced by Alejandro Rodriguez, PlayMakers’ associate artistic director, and directed by New Jersey actor and director Laura Ekstrand.

The panel discussion that followed addressed how the Internet continues to change the way we work as journalists. The panelists tackled the challenges of writing about race and racial tensions in this moment, as well as the delicate “grey area” of dealing with sources we know.

The evening was a reminder of the power of theater to encourage conversations that are often difficult to have and bring big issues to the personal level, where we can feel them as well as think about them.

(Photos by Lois Boynton)


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