Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sally Hemings

About a week ago a friend forwarded an article from the Washington Post, “For decades they hid Jefferson’s relationship with her. Now Monticello is making room for Sally Hemings.” I threw my head back and laughed, glad that I could now. For years, I couldn’t.
Almost 40 years ago I developed a one-woman show about Sally Hemings. A close friend, Saundra Franks, had developed a piece on Harriet Tubman and I copied her initiative. It appealed on several levels—exploring a Black woman’s life, creating a vehicle that showcased my acting range, and control. An old boy friend labeled me a control freak. I called him a liar but he was probably right. Having my own show, something that I could market without waiting for someone to cast me was equally as important as the creative aspect. I started to search for someone whose life I might want to recreate.
A friend suggested Sally Hemings. I had never heard of her. But my friend said her name off-handedly, like I was supposed to know who she was so I didn’t confess my ignorance. This was pre-Internet so I went to the library. What I discovered fascinated me—a slave who moved from Virginia to Paris and back. What did that feel like—both the going and the coming home?  Did she fit in either world?  And what did Sally, a slave and Jefferson's dead wife’s half sister, and Jefferson, one of the most dynamic men of the 18th century, share? I wanted to explore that, wanted my one-woman show to be about her.
Sally was a bitch to develop. The few Jefferson historians who mentioned Sally denied that she’d had an intimate relationship with the President. Like Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha, they claimed Jefferson’s nephews Samuel or Peter Carr, or both, fathered Sally’s children. What was written about her could be summarized in one page. There was no Sally Hemings’ story. I’d have to invent her life.
Finally I had a script, one that I wrote after my attempts to collaborate with writers failed. I got a grant from the Atlanta Arts Council to produce it, and landed my first gig. I started to fantasize. Soon I’d be booked solid like my friend for most of February and March (Black and Women’s History months). Make enough during those two months so I could coast between acting jobs and not have to do temp work. It was a great script but life didn’t follow it. I couldn’t get a booking agent. Everyone I contacted, and I contacted plenty, had the more or less the same response—what proof is there that this relationship existed? I knew Sally was controversial. Knew most historians didn’t agree with Professor Fawn Brodie who methodically documented Jefferson’s relationship with Sally in her biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. But I didn’t think controversial meant un-bookable. If anything I thought there would be more interest, you know salacious and all. But people weren’t ready to be salacious about Jefferson, one of the founding fathers.
Doing Sally of Monticello stretched me, in a multiplicity of ways. I wasn’t scholarly when I undertook the project but became an excellent researcher. I’d never written a play. I’d never done marketing. As an actor, I had a dream role, a character that ages 15 to 56. I learned plenty but didn’t get many bookings and that pissed me off, for years.  So I was glad that I could laugh. No longer angry that I’d been ahead of the curve but amused by it.