“Thomas and Sally” is full of depth, intrigue, and thought-provoking moments.
If Thomas Bradshaw were a writer of history books, then that subject might very well be THE favorite of school kids across America. Instead, he is a playwright who has created a detailed, engaging, sometimes a bit shocking, and often quite funny timeline of our third president and the woman who was the love of his life for his final thirty-seven years. That she also happened to be owned by him as his slave – although he preferred to call her and his the other of his one hundred thirty-plus slaves his “servants” – is now well known by most modern Americans. However, few of us probably know the full story as so meticulously outlined in this three-plus-hour world premiere of Thomas and Sally now on the Marin Theatre Company stage. The “n-word” spoken freely, a founding father prancing around in only his birthday suit, and statements like “Africans may not have the intelligence of the white race but you’ll not find people with bigger hearts” are all part of this telling that cannot help but make the audience squirm uncomfortably. But after taking a few gulps of air and letting the story further unfold, audience members also cannot help but gain new insights about not only our collective history and one of the best-loved of our presidents, but also new insights into some of the messes we are in today that have their roots in yesteryears long past.
Sitting in their dorm room, two roomies struggle with the demands of college life. Karen must finish a history paper due tomorrow, and Simone is seeking a private place to relieve tension via her dildo that Karen borrowed without asking (and did not clean). When Karen (Rosie Hallett) discovers that Simone (Ella Dershowitz) is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson (the subject of her paper) and his slave Sally Heming, she is ecstatic and asks for more details of the family history. Imagine her shock but soon fascination as closet doors open and that history begins to play out right in their dorm room.
The time is suddenly 1735, and the owner of Sally’s grandma (Betty Hemings) – the white owner, Captain John Hemings, actually being Sally’s grandfather – is unsuccessfully trying to buy her from a plantation owner. Time jumps ahead twenty-six years, and Betty is now caring for the motherless Martha Wayles (who will become Thomas Jefferson’s wife) while also becoming the mother of a number of children, several whose father is also Martha’s father, John. The last of these is Sally, born at Monticello, having come there as part of the marriage bounty of over 100 slaves that Jefferson acquired when he married Martha Wayles.
That the bloodlines and relationships are all very intertwined in what could be a confusing mishmash is not an issue in the fast-paced parade of characters that continue to come out of closet doors of Karen’s and Simone’s dorm room. Simone herself dons in front of us dresses of the eighteenth century and becomes Jefferson’s bride, Martha. Karen watches in full wide-eyed fascination from whatever perch on desk, shelf, or corner she can find to have a good view while also staying out of the way of her term paper being written right before her eyes.
Fifty-plus years of early American history continue to unfold before us as names familiar (Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams) and unknown (mostly slaves owned by Jefferson) appear in scene after scene where the story of Thomas and Sally slowly takes shape as a love story both sweet and sad. Along the way, many ‘facts’ and lessons of both history and civics are pitched by the characters, making Mr. Bradshaw’s play at times feel like an experimental learning device aimed at normally bored high school students. This is especially true during some of the conversations between the two college roomies where mini-lectures of Simone feel like footnotes to fill Karen (and us) in on some of the era’s details we may not know. But, just when one feels maybe I should be taking notes in case there is a test, out of the closet doors come a whole new set of interesting characters who bring more intrigue to this mixture of families, relationships, and lovers who all somehow helped shape our country’s foundations.
Tara Pacheco takes the Sally Hemings who most modern Americans know in name only and brings her to full life as a young woman torn between her genuine love for the man who owns her as property and her driving desire to be free to pursue her own unfettered life. Ms. Pacheco is brilliant in portraying both halves of Sally’s internal battle with much credible nuance. Small shifts in her countenance reveal the complex, strong character of Sally’s personality as she weighs the pull of soft caresses and erotic pleasure and the counter pull of assuming her place in society as the intelligent, strong-willed woman she is apart from Jefferson. (That latter choice becomes a possible reality for her during their years in France while Jefferson serves as the U.S. minister to a country that is willing to award any slave on its soil complete freedom.)
Equally stellar is Mark Anderson Phillips as Sally’s owner and lover, Thomas Jefferson. With a new Mozart tune – Mozart being the current rave in American Revolutionary times – always only a hum away as he walks about, his Jefferson is slightly quirky and awkward with teenage boy mannerisms in a body of a thirty-something man. Prone to bouts of silly laughter and sudden outbursts of enthusiastic declarations, this Jefferson is also clearly smitten with Sally Hemings in ways seen in his soft touches, kind voice, and starry eyes. But Mr. Phillips’ Jefferson is also a troubling conundrum as he declares himself “the foremost abolitionist of the world” who sees slavery as a “moral blotch on our nature” but who cannot bring himself to free his own treasury of slaves, including the woman he most evidently loves. In the end, Mark Anderson Phillips complicates in wonderful ways this American hero of heroes, leaving us questioning any tendencies toward our own blind admiration while also still finding ourselves liking this icon in new and different ways.
The cast of this premiere delivers excellence in all the many roles portrayed, with some members taking on as many as five persona. William Hodgson is Sally’s brother, James Hemings, who gains the chance to be trained as a French chef and the opportunity to become schooled in the French Revolution concepts of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. His James lights up with energetic zeal as he strives to please the man who keeps telling him, “Think of me as your father.” But his eyes also show much skepticism of that same man’s true intentions since the supposed father is still his master. Those same eyes are also drawn longingly to a possible horizon where freedom exists in France to open his own restaurant.
Another Hemings sibling, Robert, is ably played by Cameron Matthews – a handsome and eager-to-please valet of Jefferson’s who replaces ol’ Jupiter, a sweet but less-educated butler (L. Peter Callender) who is literally put out to the pasture (or at least the stables) by a master who is more enthralled by the younger man. Scott Coopwood and Robert Sicular each take on multiple roles, including respectively John Adams and Benjamin Franklin – roles that allow them to reenact a similarly funny scene from the musical 1776 where the two convince a reluctant Jefferson to pen single-handedly the Declaration of Independence. Charlette Speigner provides a poignant picture of what it meant to be a slave woman, Betty Hemings, who sires child after child with her owner/lover, showing both the treachery and the tenderness of the situation Fate placed her.
As he has time and again on the Marin Theatre stage (Guards at the Taj, Anne Boleyn, The Whipping Man), Jasson Minadakis once again proves his skills as a master director as he orchestrates without a hitch two time periods separated by 250 years yet often played simultaneously. He also ensures the fifty years of history flies by seemingly in a flash, even though the play itself is long enough to require two intermissions.
Into all the serious and even troubling themes and threads of the play, he and his creative team have woven much humor, often tongue-in-cheek. Sean Fanning’s scenic design is a big player in that accomplishment, with hot-breathing lovers being wheeled out in an upright bed or with members of a century long past using a dorm room’s desk as a cutting block (aided by a nearby, electric, gooseneck lamp) or pulling out a pitcher of ale from the dorm ‘frig.
Ashley Holvick has performed miracles with costumes that bring authenticity of era but that also are often donned and de-clothed while characters are shifting both roles and centuries. Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design creates its own magic, with audience members having to look twice to be sure the still fingers of Jefferson are actually not playing the violin perched under his chin. Finally, Mike Post’s lighting design helps change a dorm room’s stark atmosphere into the atmospheres of a number of other locations and time periods – from European parlors to Monticello bedrooms.
Fifty years is a lot of time to cover in one play -- especially with all the convoluted family trees, bedroom intricacies, moral dilemmas, and famed historical figures contained within Thomas Bradshaw’s Thomas and Sally. However, as produced in world premiere by Marin Theatre Company, the years are literally a few minutes each in length while being full of depth, intrigue, and thought-provoking moments.
Rating: 5 E
— Eddie Reynolds, Theater Eddy's