Thomas and Sally

Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas Jefferson, Tara Pacheco as Sally Hemings. All photos by Kevin Berne.

 

“All men are created equal,” from the United States Declaration of Independence

DNA studies confirm that descendents of Sally Hemings carry Thomas Jefferson’s genes as well, and few but preternatural deniers with their own agendas reject the findings. Because the Jefferson/Hemings linkage is of great historic and romantic consequence, many authors have penned fictions around the presumed romance, based on known facts that indisputably demonstrate a special relationship between the two.

In Thomas Bradshaw’s world premiere, Thomas and Sally, the playwright adds a new dimension which gives greater depth to the broader issues of slavery and discrimination. The play is set concurrently in the period 1776-1795 and in present time. The result is a highly entertaining speculation of private events, but more importantly, a worthy civics and history lesson on the public events of the Jeffersonian Era and beyond.

William Hodgson as James Hemings (below), Cameron Matthews as Robert Hemings (above), Ella Dershowitz as Martha Jefferson, Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas Jefferson, Charlette Speigner as Betty Hemings, Rosie Hallett as Karen.

Karen and Simone are new college roommates. As Karen begins a class assignment concerning Jefferson, she finds that Simone is a descendent of Sally Hemings, and the ensuing history is told from Simone’s perspective. Historic and current events occur on the same set with props from the modern age, as if the historic characters appear as apparitions in the dorm room. Indeed, the girls sometime observe the historic action, and some play historic roles. The result is wholly enjoyable mash up of history and fantasy.

The following are facts that are part of the historical record and provide the backbone of the play. Thomas Jefferson was appointed Minister to France. Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly to join him in France in 1787. According to French law, Hemings could be freed from slavery with a simple court filing, a prospect that Sally and her brother James would discuss. But were these slaves actually able to exercise their own independent decisions, even under the protection of French law? Sally was only 14 years of age, while Thomas was 44 at the time their presumed sexual association began – statutory rape in our day, but the right of a slave owner then.

Robert Sicular as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas Jefferson.

Bradshaw fills the history with plausible vignettes that draw heavily on public information about Jefferson. What ensues is a portrait of a highly complex man. Jefferson toils with many conflicts – always intelligently, but often self serving, and with varying confidence, diffidence, and humor. He clashes over what is good for the whole versus what is good for the individual, with laudable efforts to eradicate slavery contrasted by his inability to free his hundreds of slaves. Americans hold certain icons as near flawless, but here we see a complete man exposed as we delve into clumsy processes rather than pristine outcomes. The whole examination of Jefferson’s life begs a question that is in common currency today: Is it appropriate to evaluate historical figures based on the morals and standards of today?

Throughout the narrative, Simone educates Karen, and the audience as well. Who knew that the “single drop of black blood” definition of being a Negro did not appear until the 20th Century? Earlier, most states defined anyone over 75% Caucasian to be white.

In another revelation that elicited large groans from the audience, we hear that the very cause of the Electoral College’s existence derives from the constitutional definition that each slave was calculated to be 3/5 of a person. Since slaves couldn’t vote, the only way of incorporating them collectively as part of a state’s population was a device involving winner-takes-all for each state rather than a national popular vote. This rule tilted the balance of power in the new country to the South. Of course, the Founders assured us that the Electoral College was a way to preserve democracy and to ensure that an incompetent, narcissistic, and dangerously unpredictable person would never become president!

Ella Dershowitz as Simone, Rosie Hallett as Karen.

Mark Anderson Phillips stars as Thomas. He doesn’t convey the gravitas and charisma expected of such a luminary, but more importantly he deftly captures the ambivalence of the private person. Tara Pacheco radiates and sometimes shows fortitude as Sally, but her character is not as well developed and some of her dialogue feels too modern to fit the time.

The frequent time shifts and scene changes keep the action going without creating confusion. One aspect of the script needlessly detracts from the overall arc and prevents it from working well for younger audiences. A major sequence between the students concerns one of the young women using the other’s dildo without permission. Bright and supersized, the sex toy is flashed about on display. Perhaps this is an effort to make the play hip, but it is gratuitous. Its inclusion diminishes the many weighty issues that the play excavates, and the work would be much better without the distraction. Otherwise, Thomas and Sally makes for totally engaging theater.

Thomas and Sally, a world premier by Thomas Bradshaw is produced by Marin Theatre Company and plays at its stage at 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA through October 22, 2017