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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.