Thomas and Sally at Marin Theatre Company opened October 3rd, preceded by a lot of controversy, and dredged up painful conversations about consent, slavery, and falsified history. The risqué marketing art (pictured above), was the initial catalyst for this conversation, with many noting Sally depicted with a wry smile in seemingly full makeup in contrast with Jefferson’s sober historical portrait. That, coupled with the controversial subject matter and playwright Thomas Bradshaw at the helm, caught the public’s eye.
Thomas and Sally begins with two white female college students who will act as our framing device, Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) in their dorm room. The opening of the play details how Karen could not control her need to masturbate when she saw the men’s lacrosse team practicing shirtless, and so she used Simone’s dildo. Simone, rightfully disgusted, does not understand, and neither did I. This is not something anyone would ever, ever do. As the play progressed however, it became clear that this scene was intended demonstrate the idea that women are sex-crazed and can’t control themselves. Which, following the line of the rest of the play makes perfect sense.
Thomas Jefferson’s statue, played by a very still Mark Anderson Phillips looms over them. Karen is writing a paper about Thomas Jefferson, so Simone offers her familial knowledge – she is a white descendent of Thomas and Sally Hemings. This choice in itself is interesting, that the end product of this tale is more white innocence. When Karen doesn’t know who Sally is, Simone decides to tell her the long and wieldy tale, being sure to say “she is not a historian.” This disclaimer proves true – very few events in this play are aligned with history.
The play then begins to unfold for the benefit of the white woman’s gaze, as Simone and Karen watch the proceedings and occasionally don wigs and act out small parts in Jefferson’s family. We are initially introduced to Robert Sicular as John Wayles, who has “needs” that his daughter asks his slave to fulfill for him. Apparently part of this non-history is that daughters would help their fathers get laid after their mother died, because his “needs” are so draining he seems to be ready to give up on life. A young Martha Jefferson (Dershowitz) asks her slave and caretaker Betty Hemings to explain what these “needs” are and how babies are made. Bradshaw is perpetuating the assumption of white sexual innocence, while black women are portrayed as being experts in carnal knowledge.
Despite submissive and pro-patriarchal lines like “Your body becomes his on your wedding day, it’s how he will show his love for you,” during this lesson, Charlette Speigner gives Betty Hemings’ character dignity and agency purely through the way she comports herself. Betty is summoned to Wayles’ quarters, and attempts to get the deed over with. A petulant Wayles scolds her for being too forward, even though he is the one propositioning his property, and insists they cuddle first. Speigner lets us in on how Betty may have really felt about this moment, with a panicked glance at the audience before she reclines.
Betty then has six babies in an event best described like infants coming down the line at a factory, and screams as each one pops out, manifested as a black baby doll. John Wayles fawns over how “cute” they are and names them, but what is alarming is why John is controlling the narrative about birth when it is not happening to him. At first I thought perhaps it was because Betty would have been considered lower status, or it was a play on how Sally was not allowed to name her own child, Madison. However, it happens again later in the play with Martha Jefferson, where she screams and baby after baby comes out, with the experience narrated by Jefferson at center. This most crucial female act is entirely co-opted by masculinity.
It’s the end of Act I and Sally, whom the play is named after, has yet to appear. At the end of the act, on her deathbed Martha asks Jefferson not to marry anyone else. This is a historical fact, but in the context of the play the story told is that this tragic promise is the reason Jefferson must turn to abusing his slaves.
As Jefferson descends from his statue’s plinth, he moves walls just by nodding, elegant symbolism for the man who controls the world of this play (marvelously and indulgently designed by Sean Fanning). We are now in Monticello after Martha and Thomas’ marriage.
In Act II Sally is about to cross the ocean guided by Abigail (Hallett) and John Adams (Bay Area favorite Scott Coopwood). There is an odd excusatory exchange at the top of this scene where Abigail and John discuss seeing Othello. Abigail says something to the effect of ‘everytime he [Othello] put his paws on her we should have left,’ and John says that would be rude to the performers. It feels simultaneously as though Bradshaw is equating himself with Shakespeare and condemning the audience for wanting to escape this hellish rapey nightmare.
After Abigail and John see Sally, they state that they must send her home, and keep Jefferson out of harm’s way. The harm is Sally. The danger is her beauty. Again, white innocence and black sexual vagrancy is the message. Tara Pacheco who depicts a giggly and warm Sally Hemings, is a devastatingly beautiful person, and a grown woman unlike the fifteen year old she is portraying. The play would be very different with an actual fifteen year old cast in the role, having an older actor play Sally gives the audience room to sympathize with Jefferson. But in reality, she is still a child.
Jefferson is immediately fascinated by Sally Hemings, and she is quite uncomfortable with this being a fifteen year old child, demonstrated when he grabs her by the chin to examine if she’s had smallpox. He insists on her inoculation, where she meets a black nurse named Renee, who explains in no uncertain terms that she could be free if she chose to stay. There is a lot of stress on the fact that Sally and James (a charismatic yet brooding William Thomas Hodgson) must have known that they could be free in France, and that this meant Sally must have come home of her own free will. The likelihood that Sally Hemings would know of this law considering her limited social mobility, illiteracy, and the possibility she lived at boarding school with Patsy and Polly while in France seems incredibly unlikely. Even Robert within the world of the play makes it clear he would not have met any field slaves.
Then, there is a Pretty Woman-esque scene where Sally is put up on a chair reminiscent of an auction block as various fabrics are held up to her person. Jefferson buys her a few beautiful pieces of clothing and then pretends to give her her privacy as she goes to change back into her dress. He does no such thing and instead lurks in the doorway watching her change, disappearing just as she looks over her shoulder.
Sally Hemings is given copious spending money in the context of the play as well, however this is historically incorrect. According to The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed, the book cited as the source for much of the play, Jefferson didn’t give Sally spending money as he did her brother and his daughters.
Later on, Jefferson rationalizes in an introspective monologue that God would not have given him these desires if he did not want him to act on them, and this seems to be justification for later sexually assaulting Sally. As he approached an uneasy looking Sally, a couple of old men in the audience chuckled, cementing my nightmare. There is a stiff and unwanted kiss, and he starts to pull apart her bodice before going to black.
Lights up on the two in bed, no remnants of the mood of that assault in the air as they giggle like two lovers. Sally says he is the greatest man she and everyone in her life knows. Thomas comments on how she is just fifteen years old. This is important because when this relationship began she was fourteen. Both ages are too young to give consent, but sexual agency is far more developed in a girl on the cusp of maturity and a girl fresh out of preteen years. I believe this choice was made to make the audience more comfortable with their relationship, and it did not work for this audience member. Furthermore, Thomas asks Sally if she’d be willing to be his chambermaid so that they can go on seeing each other without arousing suspicion. She says “in that case, I’d happily become your chambermaid.” This falsified consent sends a dangerous message.
In the next scene, Sally discusses sex with Jefferson, saying things like “it’s pretty amazing, he could have anyone but he chose me.” Or, “sometimes he does this thing which I love called oral sex.” She is impressed by Jefferson’s virility, bragging that they do it two or three times a night, and all she thinks about its getting pregnant. She wants to ask him to pull out but she is too afraid he will get angry. I watched this entire scene with my jaw hanging open. I do not understand what adult would put these perspectives onstage in good conscience.
What is more, children Sally’s age have seen this play. Marin Theatre Company has had Student Matinees. My heart is breaking thinking of kids who sat in that audience and saw the sorts of things their predator says to them, or the thought processes used for coping normalized onstage. The student matinee guide does nothing to contextualize that this play is not a model for consent and how it should work in the world. This is an excerpt from the final paragraph: “The play closes with the debate that rages all around Thomas and Sally’s relationship: Sally’s consent and agency. She was slave—could she give or withhold consent? How does today’s concept of consent apply to lives lived 300 years ago? She was also a teenager—was she exploited, when the legal marriage age in Virginia during her lifetime was 10 years old? Or were there other factors at play in the relationship between Thomas and Sally?”
Was she exploited, when the legal age in Virginia to marry was ten years old? Yes. Any child forced to marry that young was exploited, period. The age of consent now is 16 in some states, 18 in others, for a reason. Jefferson was an exploitative pedophile of his time who forced his property to do what he wanted, as was his prerogative.
Part of Sally’s fictional choice to stay with Jefferson in the play is an attempted escape with Renee after discovering she is pregnant. She and Sally decide to run away in the night, and Sally is almost raped. She then stumbles back into safety saying that she didn’t think she needed a man to protect her, but maybe she does. This perspective goes unchallenged, and speaks to the greater message and context of the play. It seems to argue that women are enslaved already as wives, and attempts to equate that as worse than or equal to the chattel slavery to which African-Americans were subjected.
Also in the student packet under recommended class exercises is the following prompt: “History is often told from the point of view of the people in power, but Thomas and Sally gives us a different perspective, from the point of view of servants and minorities. How does a story change when you tell it from someone else’s perspective?” The perspective of this play is not told from the viewpoint of minorities, it is told from the viewpoint of the white female characters used as stage devices to tell us how to feel and think about the story.
We flash back to these women, Karen and Simone, and their debate commences. Karen wonders if Sally Hemings could have given consent considering that she was a slave, and Simone promptly shouts her down. Simone asserts that Sally and Thomas lived as man and wife, that to say that Sally couldn’t give consent because she was a slave not only dehumanizes Sally, but her whole family. She also asserts that the two lived like man and wife, an image reinforced by the fictional proposal Thomas makes to Sally at the end of the play, another imagined bit of fake history. Then it ends. Karen’s viewpoint that Sally could not consent to sex at fourteen while enslaved, which a view most sane people who live in 2017 would share, is pretty much disregarded as dehumanizing. I cannot figure out how this makes sense. It dehumanizes her to say that she was a joyful receptacle for a man 30 years her senior, and hiding behind this argument is cowardly.
Thomas Bradshaw is quoted in the student packet on page 9 as saying: “My plays are also open-ended. I don’t send the audience away with a clear message that they’re supposed to have learned from the play. Instead, I place it in the lap of the audience to decide what they want to derive from the play. Art must leave room for audience interpretation. Otherwise, it’s propaganda.” Bradshaw is correct, this is propaganda, and the message is that men can fill in the gaps of female history, slavery wasn’t so bad, and women enjoy being controlled and raped by men. It is a dangerous fantasy to feed to both adults and children, especially in an era where children wear confederate flags to school in California because “everyone learns history differently.”
Generally, I don’t understand why the play was written or produced, it seems to be investigating some really backwards questions. Based on audience reaction, many people want to see this play because it makes people like me, queer black assault survivors, feel like crying. They genuinely enjoy living in a time where people like this were subjected to the most base horrors of human experience and people like them were on top. Many others seemed just as upset as I was. Personally, I do not understand how employees of MTC who disagree with this production could continue to work there with such horrific messaging coming out of this play and the institution.
They have actually hired security guards to deal with, what, I’m not sure. Presumably black rage, though nobody has done anything to them except speak their mind. When I arrived, a young woman was handing out flyers with some of the information from the Huffington Post article on how black women feel about Thomas and Sally, and she told me the security had been harassing her quite a bit. Advocates against sex trafficking for Regina’s Door came to burn a bundle of sage and a single black candle, and Marin’s security guards called the police on them twice. Then, in their public explanation as to why they called the police, MTC referenced the wildfires in the North Bay to explain their fear of blackness. A theatre company that cannot peacefully engage with black people should not be producing black plays. It is common institutional knowledge for MTC, who has had to talk to the Marin Police about not harassing black actors employed there in the past, that police in Marin are not friendly to black people. So why would you put their lives in danger like that, or give security the authority to call anybody with a gun, for people burning sage?
Additionally, why did Thomas Bradshaw need to go to an almost entirely white theatre in an almost entirely white Mill Valley to do this production? Black men participate in the dehumanization and degradation of black women everyday, and Bradshaw’s race is something the company has frequently hid behind to justify producing this play. This play could only happen in the cone of whiteness that is MTC, because if I had known what this play was going to be when it was being conceived, I definitely would have had to speak up. There is an overwhelming amount of personal accounts being circulated by women who auditioned for the production that they spoke up about how nonsensical and offensive the script was, but their pleas were ignored and out of town actors were cast.
In spite of all the inappropriate and harmful messaging in and around the play, I must say that Robert Sicular’s Ben Franklin is the most delightful part of this production. Ashley Holvick’s costumes are luxurious and the wigs and hairpieces occasionally very convincing. Sicular does a wonderful job bringing joy to one of the only moral compasses in the play. One of the most redeeming things about this production that must be noted is Mike Post’s lighting design, which illuminated the play with soft blues and yellows that give the illusion of old paintings.
Ultimately I do not understand why it was extended, or why Marin Theatre is insisting on producing and profiting off of black bodies. The company is saying people cannot participate in the conversation until they see the play. If there is anyone within the company who feels as I do, who understands why this play is so damn painful, I encourage you to stand up and say your piece or quit. Don’t participate in this exploitation, and definitely don’t buy a ticket.
BIAS ALERT: I worked at Marin Theatre Company as one of three Artistic Interns in their 15/16 season, the year after T&S was commissioned, and did some of the dramaturgical research for this piece in its conception.