A Marriage that Never Was Dreams Up New American Myths and Values

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) play music and more in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) play music and more in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

The astonishing, though still largely unknown, American playwright Thomas Bradshaw — whose Thomas and Sally is receiving its world premiere in a terrific production at the Marin Theater Company — gets his kicks out of seeing the world as it is, unvarnished and raw.

One imagines in another life that Bradshaw might have been one of those gleeful animal scientists, the kind who seem all too happy to report that hamsters eat their young, penguins dig necrophilia, and dolphins are gang rapists. His oeuvre is a hall of shame of outré behavior rendered in a flat, comic style that resembles the unsettling veneer of late 20th-century daytime soaps.

Thomas and Sally begins in a dorm room where two young women, apparently white, are arguing over dildo etiquette, a typical Bradshaw scene if there ever was one. Karen is writing a term paper on Thomas Jefferson, which sends Simone into a tizzy of delight, for she is a Hemings, an illegitimate descendant of our third president and Sally Hemings, his slave and longtime lover.

(Editor’s note: Many critics have recently called historical accounts that refer to Hemings as Jefferson’s “lover” or “mistress” into question because, as his slave and, therefore, his property, it’s unclear whether she gave consent in their sexual relations.)

(L to R) Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and her roommate Karen (Rosie Hallett) are sharp observers and sometimes antagonists on the importance of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings romance in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.
(L to R) Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and her roommate Karen (Rosie Hallett) are sharp observers and sometimes antagonists over the importance of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings romance in ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Karen responds that Simone isn’t or doesn’t look Black and there we have it, Bradshaw’s first puncture wound to American identity. Even as she shares a dildo with the result of our country’s original sin, or whatever you want to call the last 300 years of racial turmoil and mixing, Karen can’t quite believe what’s right in front of her eyes. Not only are we a nation built on kidnapped and enslaved Africans, but, more radically, an African-American nation right down to a young blond woman going to college in Vermont.

So with Simone as our trusty narrator and Karen in need of some hands-on research, the two lead us through a vaudeville history of the Jefferson and Hemings families, often taking on minor roles themselves for the sheer joy of it all. The tone is anarchic and full of wild theatrical invention, and yet all that nuttiness is balanced with a searing, social realism.

A slave owner refuses to sell a slave because he’s curious to see how a mixed-race child “would turn out.” Slaves beat other slaves for sadistic fun and practical power. Jefferson’s father-in-law gives him some deathbed advice — “those slaves are your wealth” — and the economically insecure abolitionist suddenly sees the freeing of Blacks as a moral necessity that must happen… later. The jokes are wry, but the moral and ethical stakes are vast.

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) takes a bath while Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews) must listen to him muse about life and his feelings in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.
Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) takes a bath while Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews) must listen to him muse about life and his feelings in ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Part of the pleasure of Thomas and Sally is that it’s long and divided into three acts, a rarity in contemporary American theater. And so the idea of resolution is delayed — and that’s crucial to Bradshaw’s game. We have room to roam and our sense of history starts to mutate towards reality, the way people really behave. Here is the world as it was and as it continues to be, ugly and kind of fun.

Bradshaw isn’t making an argument so much as throwing us into a thousand obvious possibilities. Reveling in the brutal facts of slavery and its astounding injustices, this truly daring playwright challenges us to recognize uncomfortable truths: that slave owners fell madly in love with their slaves and that some slaves were sexually attracted to their masters. Thomas and Sally takes its time in letting those things happen, but has little patience for any naiveté about the ways of the world.

Bradshaw’s Jefferson is close to, if not criminal in his behavior. He’s a self-justifying prig who barely understands his own twisted desires, and yet he’s a beautiful person with a true sense of love. Played with great precision by Mark Anderson Phillips, we’re confronted with the full force of a man overwhelmed by a love that almost exists outside his imagination. In many ways his brilliance makes everything scuzzier than it should be.

Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) tries to imagine everything that is happening to her in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.
Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) tries to imagine everything that is happening to her in ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

And because of the play’s length, we have time to assess and reassess behavior, to feel the romance rise and ebb more than a few times. So we can truly follow Hemings’ slow awakening to the full horror and crazy possibilities that were opening up before her. She comes to Paris, barely 14, the maidservant to Jefferson’s daughter. And before long she’s having a passionate affair with the 44-year old founding father (not to mention then-ambassador to France and future president) who owns her, though crucially, maybe not in Europe.

It’s a disaster of feeling and Tara Pacheco’s Sally lets us feel it all. The actress never anticipates the moment, and so we never get ahead of ourselves with Hemings. We feel and think along with her, tentatively and with great apprehension. We watch her watch Jefferson and without losing our ethical qualms, start to see him in the way a very young, enslaved woman might. Here is true love and an escape to a better world, or maybe, terrifyingly, just the opposite.

When Jefferson unabashedly declares his love to Hemings, pay attention to the ring bearer of this marriage that never took place. For the hero of the play is neither Jefferson nor Hemings, but Simone and her absolute belief in their love. What she has been trying to tell her roommate is that in spite of all the ugliness, in spite of all the injustice, in spite of a thousand moral failures, she still feels and is the inheritor of Jefferson and Hemings’ great love.

It is more than just history for Simone (Ella Dershowitz), as she observes Betty Hemings (Charlotte Speigner) with roommate Karen (Rosie Hallet) in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.
It is more than just history for Simone (Ella Dershowitz), as she observes Betty Hemings (Charlotte Speigner) with roommate Karen (Rosie Hallet) in ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Simone’s belief is nothing less than a hijacking of American identity, the jettisoning of one set of myths for the embrace of an entirely different set of values. It is a vision that realizes the worst in people and yet hopes for the best results, a taking on of the great American racial freak-out and declaring it our founding romance and a blessing to us all.

I’m not sure the opening night MTC crowd fully took in the scope of what they witnessed, because if they had they would have hoisted Bradshaw on their well-heeled shoulders and danced down the heart of Mill Valley.

‘Thomas and Sally’ runs through Sunday, Oct. 29. For tickets and information click here.

A Marriage that Never Was Dreams Up New American Myths and Values 12 October,2017John Wilkins

  • Donatella Galella

    I understand that Bradshaw enjoys provoking audiences and that many Americans would like to romanticize slavery and rape, yet both remain upsetting as they rationalize historic and continuing white supremacy and hetero-cis patriarchy. I’m particularly perturbed by the editor’s note [(Editor’s note: Many critics have recently called historical accounts that refer to Hemings as Jefferson’s “lover” or “mistress” into question because, as his slave and, therefore, his property, it’s unclear whether she gave consent in their sexual relations.)] because the editor fails to realize that enslaved people cannot ever give consent. This article bends over backwards to give a slaveowner every benefit of a doubt. It’s not an issue of whether we don’t have knowledge about this particular incident. It’s an issue that the very nature of consent in a situation with slavery is fundamentally different. Can someone give consent when they cannot refuse sex? No. Will NPR be publishing an article asking if someone held at gun point and raped maybe gave consent to sex? I hope not.

    • Theatrelvr

      Did any of you actually see the play? Since when are we so afraid to see content that is uncomfortable? This is why we lose elections people…fighting art, fighting something subjective is a waste of time. There are several narratives in this show.

      There are far more, non-fictitious issues at play in this county including: racial injustice, gender bias, and apathy towards ‘rape culture’. Fighting people who are inherently on your side, isn’t a good look, doesn’t help with progress and gives the other side ammunition. Moreover, trying to shut the play down is akin to 1930’s book burnings that swept across Europe. Go see the play, get involved with the discussion and dialogue.

      • jerzeygirl

        I saw the play. It is disturbing but it should not be shut down. Instead, theater, the playwright should’ve been more aware. Not just of the circumstances of the Hemmings rape but also of the community
        around them, one that has wholeheartedly supported their work for many years. So no, don’t shut down the play. And don’t pretend that a privileged white man is doing anything but taking what he wants – regardless of her feelings, wants and needs.

  • pvuong09

    This show and this review is sugarcoating and supporting rape. How can one simply “hope” for a positive perspective on rape during slavery? Wilkins writes, this is “…the jettisoning of one set of myths for the embrace of an entirely different set of values. It is a vision that realizes the worst in people and yet hopes for the best results, a taking on of the great American racial freak-out and declaring it our founding romance and a blessing to us all.” Seeing this story in this light doesn’t somehow bring this country together; instead it erases the history and violence of the building of this country

  • Ashley

    Even if Sally *did* consent (which, as an enslaved person, she could not have), she was still well underage. Thomas Jefferson repeatedly raped a girl starting at age 14. How can audiences be okay with this? How can anyone sit there and feel comfortable? Would audiences accept this if, instead of being enslaved and Black, Sally were a blonde 8th-grader like the ones in their neighborhood? People really need to do some soul-searching about why this celebration of ephebophilia isn’t troubling them.

  • CSL, Playwright

    Whoa!! Wait a minute: “(Editor’s note: Many critics have recently called historical accounts that refer to Hemings as Jefferson’s “lover” or “mistress” into question because, as his slave and, therefore, his property, it’s unclear whether she gave consent in their sexual relations.)” It’s UNCLEAR?! What’s unclear about the fact that an enslaved child cannot consent to sex with her master??

Author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is the theater critic for KQED Arts. He was the Artistic Director of Last Planet Theatre for ten years and teaches in the Writing and Literature program at CCA. Follow him on Twitter @johnrwilkins2

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