My Uncomfortable Night With "Thomas and Sally"


A provocative, but not thought-provoking, play.
When I first heard about Thomas Bradshaw’s play Thomas and Sally opening at Marin Theatre Company, I was intrigued.

I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding the play – the artwork made the 14-year-old slave Sally Hemings look coy and over-sexualized, while it made Jefferson look distinguished. But I thought the play shouldn’t be judged by the artwork. I wanted to see for myself what an award-winning provocative black playwright in 2017 would do with Sally Hemings’s story. What might that relationship look like from Sally’s perspective? What might her story be? 

From the moment I passed a group of mostly black women protesting outside the theater, singing and chanting “Sally was a child!” I felt uncomfortable. One woman handed me a flyer that started with these sentences in bold: “Please help us put an end to harmful stereotypes; do not support this play or Marin Theatre Company. Ask for a refund and let Marin Theatre Company know why.” It went on to list quotes taken from a recent Huffington Post article “Reflections on the Rape of a Slave Girl.” 

I knew the protestors weren’t wrong about Sally, but I told myself, there is no way this play is going to do what you’re afraid it’s going to do – it’s not going to condone Jefferson’s predatory behavior; it’s not going to marginalize Sally Hemings

I started having my doubts about that inside the lobby. 
I walked through the crowd of predominately white people drinking wine before the house opened, and I looked at the d├ęcor. There were printed letters between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a Hemings family tree, some jars of “scents from Monticello,” and then there was a photo booth backdrop, along with period dress for props. Despite its friendly reminder that “others will want to take photos as well,” no one was using it. Maybe they, too, felt that it was gross to allow people to dress up like slaves for Instagram. Or Facebook, really, as it’s a theater crowd and they don’t skew young.

Even in the restroom, I was struck with the lack of respect the theatre seemed to have for its subject matter. I usually appreciate reading material above the urinal, but putting three depictions of Sally Hemings there seemed boneheaded. 

When I grabbed a program before heading to my seat, I noticed it had no cover. My guess is they printed programs with the controversial promotional art shown above and removed the covers due to the backlash. 

Before the show, an employee made an announcement acknowledging the protestors. He said they were distributing material about the play that was not accurate, and that we were all invited to participate in a Q&A after the show to discuss it. 

As the lights went down, I was prepared to feel unsafe – pushed outside my comfort zone, confronted with thoughts that challenged my beliefs. That’s the power of good art. Instead, from the opening moments of the play, I started to feel like maybe I wasn’t in good, confident hands. 

The set before the show
The play is framed by two present-day college girls in their dorm room, one of them telling the other the history of her ancestors, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. That framing device feels like a copout, as it can be invoked to explain the more unrealistic or provocative aspects of Thomas and Sally’s relationship portrayed – that’s not what we’re saying happened, that’s just this girl’s version of it! It’s an interesting way into the story, but it's used sporadically and ineffectively. 

Overall, I felt like I was watching a few different plays – one of them was by a playwright interested in getting inside Thomas Jefferson’s head and his hypocrisies. Another was by someone who was commissioned to write a play about Sally Hemings but never succeeded in getting inside her head in a way that earned the right to speak for her. 

Bradshaw’s exploration of Thomas Jefferson showed him as a manipulative, weak-willed hypocrite with great power, but it treated his hypocrisies as eccentricities – it did very little to challenge them. That might be because in Jefferson’s time his hyprocrisies weren’t challenged as much as a modern audience would like to see. The modern framing of the play seems to invite this kind of confrontation but never delivers it. 

We don’t get nearly as much richness from the character of Sally, who appeared in only two of the play’s three acts. It’s true she may not have been a very active protagonist in her own life, but I hoped a play about her might give her more of a role in the narrative at least through exploring her thoughts. It really wasn’t a play about her, though. One reason for that, the artistic director suggested in the post-play Q&A, was because we have so few details about her life. That may be the case, but if you’re going to mount a play called Thomas and Sally, you should be prepared to give us a more fleshed-out Sally even if that means making choices outside of the dearth of historical evidence. 

The choices Bradshaw did feel confident to make about Sally were troubling. 
Thomas teaching Sally how to play the violin
The overwhelming sentiment I heard before seeing the play was, “I hope it doesn’t romanticize their relationship.” Upon seeing it, I felt that parts of the play absolutely provocatively romanticized their relationship. 

The part of the protestors’ flyer I suspect the employee was referring to as “inaccurate” before the show was this: “When I read the line where a 14-year-old enslaved Sally Hemings says that the more sex she gets from Thomas Jefferson, the more she wants it, I wanted to cry.” Having seen the play, I can tell you that line is not in it. I can also tell you that such a line would not seem out of place in the play, and it strikes me as something that may very well have been in an earlier draft. 

Even though the play touched on the issues of agency and consent and whether or not a 14-year-old slave had any ability to give consent, those ideas weren't really explored or challenged in thoughtful or thought-provoking ways. There was not enough of a balance of exploring the power dynamics and question of consent to provide a dramatic counterpoint to the scenes of Thomas and Sally as giddy lovers. 

After the play there was a Q&A with the play's artistic director/director Jasson Minadakis. It served mostly as a discussion for audience members to vent their frustration with the way the subject matter was handled. The words “sickening” and “fake news” were used. Several times in his answers, Minadakis said variations of, “If you thought this play was saying [insert offensive thing here], then we weren’t doing our job.” You probably shouldn’t have to say “then we weren’t doing our job” multiple times. 

As the play’s coverless program attests, one of its goals is to make people uncomfortable. I was prepared to have my white male biases challenged and be pushed outside my comfort zone. I hoped this might help me understand something about an experience so far removed from my own. The play did make me uncomfortable, but the reason I felt uncomfortable is because I’d just patronized something that missed its mark. 

There were positive notes. Mark Anderson Phillips was a very convincing Thomas Jefferson, and Tara Pacheco could have handled much more than she was given as Sally Hemings. Within its three acts, there seems to be the makings of an interesting play exploring Thomas Jefferson that could be great if it pushed him further, beyond an eccentric dandy verbally sliding his way thorough his hypocrisies. But even that play doesn’t warrant the name "Thomas and Sally."

In its current state, Thomas and Sally is a conversation starter about Sally Hemings, but on its own it doesn’t add anything noteworthy to the conversation.

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5 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. It's unfortunate that this subject matter was treated without sensitivity to Sally. You are right in that there was a lot they could've done that they didn't. But hopefully the fact that people were protesting and bringing light to how wrong this is will help continue to get people thinking about what really happened in our history.

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  2. Hi, Howard. Thanks for a thought-provoking and sensitive review. MTC has informed me privately that the picture of actresses depicting Sally Heming was posted only in the ladies' room, not in the men's. Can you be specific about where you saw the picture? Additionally, did you see any costumery in the photo booth that specifically evoked "slave" and "slaver"? MTC is saying that the photo-booth featured only "props" such as three-corner hats and quill pens.

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    1. I took the photographs shown above myself on Saturday, October 21 and I can assure you that the urinal I used was in the men’s room. It was the men’s room on the left side of the theatre (not the restroom by the concession stand), and the depictions of Sally in film were in a frame mounted above the urinal. (I never set foot in a ladies’ room there.)

      The photo above shows the extent of signage and costumes appearing by the photo booth - it wasn’t a “booth” really but a large screen with (I believe) MTC’s logo on it. No signage was present that mentioned slavery in reference to the costumes.

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  3. Thanks, Howard. I have no idea why MTC is so boldly denying this, even in the face of photographic evidence.

    MTC Finance Manager and former Business Manager Safi Manzoor told me on the phone that he doubts there could be any costumes on display or that audience members would be allowed to pose in them, since "We need them for the actors. You're an actor; you understand that."

    MTC Director of Marketing & Communications Sara Waugh (who is also their Social Media Manager and single-handedly staffs their Facebook Messenger account) wrote to me: "We also display dramaturgy (fact sheets, sometimes quotes from plays) in frames on the backs of our bathroom stalls, and the only fact sheet about actresses that have played Sally Hemings before are in the womens bathroom as, again, it would be inappropriate to feature that piece in the mens room." When I confronted her with your photograph and blog entry, she promised to "check on that right now." That was about 24 hours ago, and she has not responded to me on that point.

    Sara did get back to me about an hour later with a very long (and rather general) written response about the "photobooth" (her word), but declined to respond to my question about the display in the men's room. I have since repeated the question to her at least three times -- both on Messenger and in a voicemail message several hours ago on her personal extension -- but have received no response.

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    1. I didn't think one of the lessons I'd learn from seeing the play was what it feels like to have the reality of my experiences questioned. It's very unfortunate that they would choose to deny the facts rather than own their mistakes and apologize.

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