• Apr 13, 2018

When History Moves

by Laura A. Brueckner

Thomas Bradshaw's world-premiere play, Thomas and Sally, begins with a conversation between two college roommates, Karen and Simone. Karen is writing a paper on Thomas Jefferson. Simone has a Jefferson story to share, but first cautions her friend, “I'm not a historian. You might want to do some fact checking before you go writing what I'm about to tell you in your paper.” Without missing a beat, her friend agrees to do so. 

This brief exchange is only one of many moments of intentional disjoint in Bradshaw's challenging, swiftly-moving play. The point it slyly makes—blink and you'll miss it—is that fact-checking the story we're about to witness is a literal impossibility. The written historical record offers a dizzying amount of data on Thomas Jefferson, of course, including logs of everywhere he traveled during his government service; numerous writings, public and private; architectural renderings for buildings he designed; and his famous Farm Book, where he kept obsessive records of every aspect of Monticello's daily economic life.

However, it holds nothing about how he interacted with or felt about Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who lived with him in Paris and Virginia and bore him six children. If there is no record of this dimension of the life of one of the most studied Founding Fathers, how much less likely is it that the thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings herself would have been captured for posterity? No writings of hers have survived, if she did write; no portraits of her exist. In Jefferson's Farm Book, hers are the only enslaved children whose father's name is left blank. Bradshaw's play forcefully reminds us that one of the forms of violence that slavery inflicted upon the enslaved was erasure.

But the fact that the historical record tells us nothing about what Sally Hemings thought or felt does not mean that she thought and felt nothing. Far from it—the facts of her life that have been established by primary sources indicate a woman of remarkable personal effectiveness, who negotiated with a future U.S. president and secured freedom for her children in a world where both were unthinkable for an enslaved woman. As he began his research, playwright Bradshaw became fascinated with how such a person might have interacted with others in a society founded on ideals of freedom, but warped in ways large and small by the hungers of a professionally racist power class addicted to the economic, sexual, and legal exploitation of others. This intense conflict is what gives Thomas and Sally its energy and its edge.

We do know some historical facts about Sally’s life. She was born enslaved to Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha; she was separated from her mother and siblings at 14 years old and sent across the Atlantic Ocean as a nanny for eight-year-old Polly Jefferson. Living in Paris with Jefferson, his daughters, and her own brother, James, she was paid a wage, received smallpox inoculation, attended balls, and learned French; discovering that she would be legally free under French law, she refused to return to Virginia with the wealthy, much older man who owned and had impregnated her. Finally, after extracting a “solemn pledge” from this man that her children would be free, she sailed for America with him, his daughters, and her brother, just as Paris began to convulse with the first violent spasms of the French Revolution. All of these facts, drawn from financial records, letters, and the memoirs of Sally’s son, Madison, are faithfully reflected in Bradshaw’s play.

This does not mean that Thomas and Sally is a “history play,” seeking only to string together factual details as appealingly as possible. Bradshaw’s approach is fresh, dynamic, and, in places, deliberately anachronistic; several characters and events are entirely fabricated. The play takes its scenario from history, but the point of its highly stylized storytelling is to show how the human urges, errors, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies that shaped America’s past continue to warp our laws and public discourse about race and power in the present.

Bradshaw also intentionally departs from the content and style of preexisting narratives about who the enslaved were and how they behaved that he feels have been designed to place white audiences at a comfortable distance from slavery. These narratives, popular in Hollywood and on the stage, traffic in lushly designed sequences of violence against Black bodies, artful images of people toiling in photogenic cotton fields, and portrayals of enslaved people as one unified, monolithic group who nobly stood up for one another (except for rare bad apples, who were then suitably punished), sang spirituals, and spoke in what historian Annette Gordon-Reed calls the “one universal and timeless dialect” of Southern slavery. Bradshaw seeks to explode these notions, and any others that render slavery as anything other than bizarre, complex, and shaped on all sides by the human craving for control.

One last word about history: it never stands still. This is true in the sense that researchers are continuously revisiting evidence left by the past with new eyes and tools, drawing new conclusions about how it all worked. It's also true in the sense that, at any moment, any of us can find ourselves in the midst of events that are clearly massive in scope and impact—history crashing into us, whether we like it or not.

As it turned out, both of these dynamics affected the development of Thomas and Sally. New understandings about how Monticello worked surfaced in February of this year, when the Washington Post published a news story about a major archaeological find inside the house: the small room—“just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom”—that historians believe housed Sally Hemings; it is now being excavated and restored. Suddenly, Sally Hemings was in the news, everywhere, and so was her involvement with Thomas Jefferson—and so were hundreds (probably thousands) of passionate exclamations about the nature of their sexual relationship. Blogs and article comment sections filled up quickly with fiercely polarized responses impossible to reconcile: the story of their relationship is purely a hoax; the story of their relationship is purely rape; the story of their relationship is less important than Jefferson’s contributions to the nation; the story of their relationship proves that the nation Jefferson and men like him founded is irredeemably corrupt. Every new article resulted in a conflagration of anger on all sides. Rather than sidestep the debate, Bradshaw decided to give it room in the script itself: “Current events have brought out some things in sharper relief,” he said, during a recent conversation. “I had to keep thinking about the idea of agency when you have limited agency. What I ultimately decided was to have the argument out there on the stage; we can’t hide from it, can’t pretend there aren’t different points of view.”

Thomas and Sally also changed in response to the racist violence in Charlottesville—a definite instance of history crashing into us unbidden. The fact that the white supremacists had gathered at the University of Virginia, specifically around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, had big ramifications for the production.

Originally, Bradshaw’s script had not specified the location of Karen and Simone’s school; starting in about June, director Jasson Minadakis had begun to envision MTC’s production at UVA, founded by Jefferson himself in 1819. That location, however, clearly was no longer suitable. Not only did we not want MTC to appear to elbow its way into the discourse on a national tragedy, eager for a shot of cheap “relevance,” we felt that setting the play too close to that charged spot would also damage the play. Many of the outrageous things that Bradshaw’s characters say so openly—which is really them just speaking aloud the outrageous, usually unspoken realities of their world—can only be said by characters who feel safe, immune to not only the consequences but even the real meaning of their own words. Bradshaw, deciding that UVA could not provide the kind of buffer his characters would need in order to say what he wanted them to say, decided to set the play in Vermont.

The original set design also needed to change. For months, the set developed by designer Sean Fanning had featured the UVA’s statue of Thomas Jefferson dead center, with Jefferson initially gazing over the stage and all that unfolded upon it with monumental indifference. While our team had closely tracked the conversations roaring across the country about pulling down statues of men who fought for the Confederacy, and watched the blaze expand to include statues of Founding Fathers who had owned slaves (especially hot on college campuses), this had all felt quite in keeping with our use of the statue—a symbol of America’s conflicted nature, frozen in time, which we can today neither deny nor celebrate.

The racists’ high-visibility appropriation of Jefferson’s statue, however, was a game-changer. The statue now meant something it hadn’t meant before the awful event we now call, simply, “Charlottesville.” History had crashed into our set design. Designer Fanning, fully equal to the task, researched dozens of other statue designs, finally settling with Bradshaw and Minadakis on a version that spoke to both the remoteness of Jefferson’s image as American icon and to current realities about what statues of American icons can and do mean to American audiences.

A word to the wise: when history moves, watch out.

Many MTC supporters have asked us, “Ultimately, what is this commissioned play, Thomas and Sally? What's the best interpretive lens for us to use to understand what it's up to—is it a comedy? Satire? Is it historical fiction? Is it, heaven forbid, some kind of twisted romance? If it’s not ‘psychological realism’” [hint: it’s not], “what is it?”

Having now spent almost a year in the world of Thomas and Sally with Thomas Bradshaw and Jasson Minadakis (who have been working on it together for more than two years prior to that), having had the luxury of two separate development workshops to sound its depths and listen to its rhythms, what I can say with confidence about this very unique and challenging play is that it is an exploration. It’s an exploration of America, past and present, to uncover truths that many white Americans have been taught to gloss over or distance ourselves from because they threaten our self-interest, our self-perception as good, compassionate, progressive people. It is an exploration done in order to clear away easy assumptions to make room for more honest conversations about the very real issues it presents, conversations that ideally lead to real action. It’s not about—it’s never been about —making us comfortable. The truth is that we can never know what Thomas or Sally actually thought or felt when they were in a room alone together. We can speculate, based on their ages and how sexual and economic power works; we can rage, based on the known horrors of slavery and today’s miasma of racial injustice; we can project our own values, today, onto theirs, 300 years ago; but we will never, ever, know. What we can do is keep exploring.