Review of Thomas and Sally
By Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Jasson Minadakis

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA
Tickets: $10-49

RUN: September 28 – October 22, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(October 4, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), Martha Hemings (Ella Dershowitz), and Karen (Rosie Hallett). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thomas and Sally shakes the dust off history with a controversial new play by Thomas Bradshaw. He takes delight in arousing a heightened level of discomfort in the audience, eliciting shock from the humiliation of Robert Hemings, revulsion at the level of hypocrisy characters are capable of, and anger that manipulation can be such a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

Framed through the eyes of two college girls, who are refreshingly open about sexual needs, their perspective threads through the play, with musings on topics from how to safely masturbate when pregnant to whether the Electoral College is useful or eliminates the democratic process. Their imagination drives the story, leading to a confrontation between the students over whether Sally’s relationship with Jefferson was a lustful older man taking advantage of his teenage slave or a position of mutual understanding that Sally used to her benefit. The play does not attempt to answer the question; it presents a possible interpretation, leaving the audience to decide.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) watch the story unfold. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The knotwork family trees are explained in a detailed lobby display; the crucial connection is between Jefferson’s wife and her half-sister, Sally’s mother. Because the Hemings were therefore family, they resided in the house and did not participate in menial field labor. In Bradshaw’s vision, this made it difficult for Jefferson to see them as ordinary slaves; they had a certain level of standing, and he is flummoxed by their fiercely held dreams of becoming free.

The casual racism from white characters is alarming: a reminder of what this country was and still is in many ways. Jefferson’s quietly run estate is far from violent depictions of slavery, instead the institution runs silently in the background, ever present, erasing the humanity of its victims. He refers to them as servants, commenting that it is a lofty ideal to free them, but viewing his slaves as inferior children who need guidance and protection from a loving, intelligent master. I found myself nauseous from his horrifying statements that are introduced as normal observations in polite society. Director Jasson Minadakis subtly shifted focus between characters during such scenes, augmenting their effect.

From dorm room pajamas to a parade of extravagant 18th century gowns, Ashley Holvick’s costumes are remarkable. Sean Fanning’s classical set design is modular, expanding with the story, mingling modern pieces, like the mini fridge, with vaulting Ionic columns.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) contemplates architecture with Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Marin Theatre Company has assembled a forceful group of actors. Tara Pacheco as Sally Hemings captures an astute young woman who is aware of her difficult position, and is willing to fight for something more. William Hodgson is her brother, James Hemings, a talented man whose resourcefulness becomes a source of depression. Deeply troubled, he dutifully presses on; Hodgson carries the transformation from eager youth to jaded submission with painful accuracy. Portraying Thomas Jefferson as a flawed dreamer, Mark Anderson Phillips carefully steps between a sympathetic view and naively bigoted Jefferson who is used to getting his own way. Charlette Speigner’s fiery Betty Hemings manages to combine humor with tragedy in a memorable performance as Sally’s mother.

Marin Theatre Company’s commissioned Thomas and Sally is a challenging story for our time, laying bare preconceived impressions of American History through the energetic imagination of college students wrestling with current issues of race and the motivation that sex has on our culture. It may not be comfortable, but it is a brutal and entertaining reflection that needs to be considered if we are to move forward as a society.

Parental advisory: this play contains adult themes and full nudity.

Followup: Please consider reading the open letter to Marin Theatre Company from Truth Telling which discusses the social justice implications of this play and its impact on the African American  community. They have a perspective that needs to be heard for full context of this play.