As its opening play of the 2017-2018 season, Marin Theatre Company (MTC) is presenting the world premiere of Thomas Bradshaw’s Thomas and Sally, a semi-fictional biopic it commissioned about the relationship between the man who became America’s third president and a young slave girl he owned named Sally Hemings. Both in substance and in the way it’s framed, it’s a problematic choice.
Thomas Jefferson was the Renaissance man incarnate. In his public life, he was a leader in the United States House of Representatives, helping to pioneer the governmental system that had a major influence on the constitutional convention. As Ambassador to France and Secretary of State under Washington, he brought crucial foreign assistance and progressive political ideas to the fledgling nation. The beautifully phrased Declaration of Independence was largely his work, and he collaborated with his friend Lafayette on the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, many of whose tenets were incorporated into our Bill of Rights. As president, in 1803 he arranged the Louisiana Purchase from France, which vastly expanded the country’s boundaries, and launched the Lewis & Clark Expedition that opened the West to settlement. He founded the Democratic Party, a libertarian leaning group whose emphasis on individualism and limited government later was co-opted by modern Republicans. He strongly advocated for the separation of church and state, championing complete freedom for everyone.
Jefferson’s achievements were equally impressive in the private sphere. He spoke six languages and had a keen interest in science, architecture, engineering, agriculture, philosophy, history and education. Judged simply on his record, he richly deserves to have his facial image on the cliffs of Mount Rushmore. But that’s not the Jefferson we meet in Thomas and Sally. This Jefferson had a slavery problem. Like almost all Southern plantation owners, he depended on slave labor to supply the cotton used by northern textile manufacturers to keep their goods competitive with Europeans, whose factories were more technologically advanced. And, like many of these plantation owners who considered slaves to be property rather than human beings, he used that power to establish an intimate relationship with Sally Hemings that began after the death of his wife and lasted 37 years.
I am not here to defend the South in general, or Jefferson in particular. But the premise of Bradshaw’s play and the explanation in Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis’ program notes about why it was selected for development and production at MTC seems to be that there is an urgent need to set the record straight about Jefferson the man, rather than as a public figure.
The Hemings issue is well-known to anyone familiar with our history. So is the fact that George Washington, the esteemed “Father of Our Country,” also owned slaves, as did many other notables. Rather than exploring the complex circumstances that led to this contradiction between what the Founding Fathers said and what many of them practiced, Bradshaw focuses on the question of whether it was even possible for Hemings and Jefferson to have a consensual relationship based on love—given that she was a teenager and slave when it began—or whether it was a case of outright exploitation.
Bradshaw, by his own admission, does not know the full story. What we have then is a Jefferson (energetically portrayed by Mark Anderson Phillips) figuratively and literally exposing himself in a contradiction between words and deeds that is so blatant at times that he becomes a clownish figure, eliciting titters from the audience. Bradshaw doesn’t help his case with the tired device of having the story told by a contemporary college girl (Ella Dershowitz) to her roommate (Rosie Hallett).
The remainder of the ensemble and Minadakis’ direction meet MTC’s high standards, but after more than two hours of fruitless speculation, we leave the theater wondering what has been accomplished.
NOW PLAYING: Thomas and Sally runs through October 29 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.