Marin Theatre Company satire focuses on Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress
African-American playwright Thomas Bradshaw believes “history is highly malleable and subject to interpretation.”
So he had no trouble combining fact with fiction in “Thomas and Sally,” MTC’s world premiere that probes the relationship of Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. president, and Sally Hemings, the black slave/concubine/mistress who mothered six of his kids.
The 37-year-old Bradshaw has also said he finds “people can be remarkably inconsistent [and therefore makes] no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies within my characters. Hypocrisy is a part of human nature.”
He certainly doesn’t shy from showcasing the two-facedness of Jefferson, owner of almost 700 slaves but creator of the phrase “all men are created equal” and a man who called slavery a “moral depravity,” believing it to be the greatest threat to our new nation’s survival.
The playwright also does his best — by writing “along the spectrum of gray” — to illustrate his contention that no character “is good or bad.”
Bradshaw made it easy for me to ponder if Jefferson were actually a racist and white supremacist, albeit one who loved teenaged Sally, the light-skinned half-sister of his late wife and only a quarter African-American (her mother and grandmother also were impregnated by white men).
But I found two major problems in the three-act, 150-minute (plus two-intermission) Marin Theatre Company satirical drama that kicked off its 51st season:
The play needed severe cuts.
And its lack of dramatic tension and incremental character development made it now and then feel like a history lesson dressed up as episodic pageantry.
Still, Bradshaw and director Jasson Minadakis, for 11 years the artistic director of the company, guaranteed I could walk away with more-positive things to write about by:
• Incorporating topical allusions to removing commemorative statuary and instituting the electoral college as a safeguard against an uninformed populace electing a demagogic leader.
• Integrating copious comedic moments (including a scene in which Ben Franklin and John Adams dump the writing of the Declaration of Independence on Jefferson as he labels it the kind of stuff “no one else wants to do”).
• Employing, cleverly, the oft-amusing conceit of watching the narrative unfold through the eyes of two teen coeds, one of whom allegedly was a Jefferson descendant.
• Utilizing superlative costumes designed by Ashley Hovick .
• Having characters smoothly change those costumes and move furniture in dim light between the manifold scenes.
• Casting Tara Pacheco as a charming, forward-thinking Sally, even though the character doesn’t appear until the second act.
• Drawing on the acting chops of nine other actors playing more than 20 roles.
• Using uncommon visual props (such as an upended bed that spotlights the two main characters in bas-relief, and dolls that simulate babies).
• Toying with frontal male nudity in ways that humanize characters and don’t shock.
• Inserting playfully a reference to the most successful historical show of this century, “Hamilton.”
Unfortunately, “Thomas and Sally” ultimately seems more like a work in progress rather than finished product — despite the playwright having spent three years on the commission (dating to before the invention of Black Lives Matter, Trump’s presidential campaign and election, or armed neo-Nazis marching in August in Charlottesville, home of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation).
Bradshaw, in an artist’s statement, has asserted that theater “should slap the audience awake with its audacity and rivet them with its electricity.”
Regrettably, “Thomas and Sally” — despite keeping its promise to make me look at history differently — does neither.
“Thomas and Sally” plays at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, through Oct.22. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $10 to $60. Information: 415-388-5208 or marintheatre.org.