Interview with Thomas Bradshaw on his new play 'Thomas and Sally'
To open our 51st season, Marin Theatre Company is thrilled to welcome 2017 PEN Award winner Thomas Bradshaw, whose world-premiere play about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Thomas and Sally, originated as an MTC commission through our New Play Program. In this conversation with MTC literary manager/dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner, Bradshaw sets the stage for his radical exploration of a little-known chapter of American history.
LB: Thomas, you've been described by the New York Times as “American theater’s most distinctively provocative playwright”; your work has been called “button-pushing,” featuring “a deadpan style that has prompted both big laughs and angry walkouts.” That’s pretty intense! How do you feel your work departs from what audiences expect?
TB: I can tell you how my work departs from typical psychological realism, which is the framework within which much of our drama is written. I find that psychological realism is more concerned with how people should act, rather than how they actually do act in the real world. I’m much more concerned with how people actually do behave without smoothing over any of their hypocrisies. Many plays are concerned with consistency of character, so everything a character does is shown to make sense one way or another. I find that people can be remarkably inconsistent, and I make no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies within my characters. Hypocrisy is a part of human nature. We all have a set of ideals. Every day, we try to live up to those ideals, and often fall short. Some days we might make it to 90 percent, and some days 20 percent, but that doesn’t stop us from waking up the next day and striving to meet our ideals 100 percent.
There are a few other ways that my work departs from traditional drama. Often, when you’re watching a play, you can feel the hand of the playwright making moral judgments and telling you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. My plays are devoid of this obvious moralizing. No character is good or bad. Each character is presented along the spectrum of gray.
My plays are also open-ended. I don’t send the audience away with a clear message that they’re supposed to have learned from the play. Instead, I place it in the lap of the audience to decide what they want to derive from the play. Art must leave room for audience interpretation. Otherwise, it’s propaganda.
What originally got you interested in the Sally Hemings story?
I became fascinated once I realized that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. And I became even more fascinated when I learned that Sally Hemings was only a quarter African-American, because her mother and grandmother were also impregnated by white men.
What are some things you found about the Jefferson/Hemings family that surprised you?
I was very intrigued when I learned about the special status the Hemings family enjoyed within the Jefferson household. Thomas Randolph Jefferson, the white grandson of Thomas Jefferson, wrote that the Hemings’ special treatment was a source of “bitter jealousy” among the other slaves at Monticello.
I also recently listened to some recollections by Robert H. Cooley III on the Jefferson Foundation’s Monticello website. Robert is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and asserts that, according to his family lore, Thomas and Sally had a loving relationship, like that of man and wife. I found that to be an extremely interesting piece of information.
How has the development process at MTC so far influenced the trajectory of your play?
My development process at MTC has deeply influenced the trajectory of the play. The play wouldn’t be what it is without the two extensive workshop periods, and the feedback from you and Jasson. It’s impossible to see what a play actually is until you have actors breathing life into the characters. It’s a privilege to have had so much time to work on the play before going into production.
What role do MTC’s audiences play in the development of this world-premiere play—what do you hope to learn from them?
Whether they’re engaged for the whole time. It’s a big play, and my nightmare would be to bore people!