Thomas and Sally. Written by Thomas Bradshaw. Directed by Jasson Minadakis. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941.
Two college coeds are shooting the bull in their dorm room when the topic of Thomas Jefferson pops up. One of the girls is distantly related to Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore 6 of Jefferson’s children. Out from the closets pop 18th century historical figures and the past is merged into the present. 2017 PEN Award-winner Thomas Bradshaw uses this theatrical trick to whisk us back to his fictionalized account of Jefferson and Heming’s decade’s long love affair. The result is an intriguing, thought provoking portrayal of a conflicted man torn between his ideals of emancipation for African Americans and the realities of his financial adherence to slavery and its economic benefits.
A dynamic cast of ten actors play 23 roles, some historical, some pure invention. The events portrayed span the years 1735 to 1788, and as one would expect from an MTC production, the costumes (Ashley Hovick), set design (Sean Fanning), lighting (Mike Post) and sound (Theodore J. H. Hulsker) are superb, creating a rich atmosphere for Bradshaw’s smart dialogue to develop.
This world premiere, initially commissioned by MTC in 2014, portrays a Jefferson you don’t get from the history books; a history sanitized of inter-racial couplings and the hypocrisy of our forefathers. Here we see the conflict of his times (slavery) played out, the convoluted family trees that blur racial lines and the realities of racism that precede modern events like Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville and even taking a knee during our national anthem. Director Jasson Minadakis has created fluid movements that enhanced the timelines and keep the audience entranced.
Bradshaw provides a wide breadth of personalities in this epic imagined story; there’s Jupiter, Jefferson’s dutiful manservant played with righteous conviction to his lowly status by L. Peter Callender, and Betty Hemings, the grand, wise matriarch played with great dignity by Charlette Speigner, to James Hemings (William Hodgson), who dares to enlighten himself and seek his freedom.
Mark Anderson Phillips gives a wonderfully honest performance as Jefferson. It may seems shocking to hear the racist language so easily delivered by a man who wrote the words: all men are created equal. Just as shocking to see our President strip naked and hop into a bathtub and perform oral sex on Sally. Bradshaw humanizes Jefferson in a way rarely seen, as this is the strength of Thomas and Sally. When we see a human Jefferson, with all his faults, we can better understand his times as well as our own contradictions. Phillips’ Jefferson is caught in the dilemma of living the truth or staying mired in artifice and false morals. His love for Sally is the impetus for both his quandaries and his legacy.
Tara Pacheco is lovely as the strident Sally. When she travels with Jefferson to France, she has a chanced at her freedom (France had a law allowing emancipation of slaves on French soil), but foregoes that to stay with Thomas and their soon to be born child. Sally would bear 6 children with Thomas and they were freed upon Jefferson’s death as he promised.
Thomas and Sally is the kind of history lesson we all wish we had in grade school. It seems very real even though dramatized for effect. Thomas and Sally opens with Phillips standing statuesque atop a Grecian looking edifice for many minutes. Eventually he moves, comes to life and joins the proceedings. He’s alive, a real man. I’d rather see this presentation than some saint-like image that defies reality.
Performances run through October 22, 2017 www.marintheatre.org 415.388.5208