At a crucial point in Charles Smith's new play, which opened Friday night in an Indiana Repertory Theatre world-premiere production, a distant view of Thomas Jefferson's plantation home of Monticello dissolves in a wash of cloudy atmosphere.
Well designed at every turn, "The Reclamation of Madison Hemings" is notable in part for the projections design of Mike Tutaj. In what amounts to what the Greeks called the perpeteia, a turning point in the circumstances of the title character, Monticello vanishes. For a time, a grayish-brown celestial stew pervades the backdrop, suggesting a J.M.W. Turner painting and symbolizing the obscurity into which Madison's quest to reclaim his identity has fallen.
|At Monticello Israel and Madison consider their paths forward.|
The downstage action involves Hemings shooting a blind, starving mule whose braying has annoyed him and the more crucial collapse of an axle on the wagon onto which Thomas Jefferson's aging son has loaded items from the decrepit landmark, intending to take them to home and family in Ohio.
Both actions frustrate the better-adjusted ex-slave Israel Jefferson, formerly the distinguished proprietor's footman, who has returned to Virginia to find a long-lost brother. It's a bleak November in 1866.
The milieu is vividly embodied through Shaun Motley's stark scene of trees, dirt, and underbrush, Christopher Kriz's sound design (the thunderstorm will knock your socks off), and Jared Gooding's lighting. Dana Rebecca Woods' costumes represent both characters well from the top down: Israel's wide-brim slouch hat over against Madison's black top hat. The hugely indebted ex-president is 40 years dead, and legacy hunting of a complicated kind is on the agendas of both Israel and Madison.
Under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, Brian Anthony Wilson as Madison Hemings and David Alan Anderson as Israel Jefferson forge a believable, acutely intimate, somewhat long-winded partnership of considerable complexity. Genuine camaraderie breaks through from time to time amid sharp goading, mental sparring, tears, and shouting. They draw upon their common, though differently founded, experience at Monticello in its long-ago heyday. Israel feels he properly owns his former identity at the top of the household pyramid, and that the continued subjection of blacks to whites after slavery must be prudently accommodated. Bitter to the point of madness, Madison tries to maintain a fragile idealism about African-American prospects as his white father's hypocrisy and its long-range effects haunt him.
As with the country today he did so much to found, Thomas Jefferson combined an Enlightenment sensibility with adherence to the custom of elites everywhere to make their lives easier by dominating others. If that required chattel slavery in that time and place, it was firmly kept in force amid white, propertied men's cries for liberty. Charles Smith has engaged imaginatively in complications of Jefferson's character and its effect on both his play's characters, who are rooted in historical figures with more of a written record than most others of their status.
The enthralling semi-fictional Jefferson that Robert Penn Warren created in his book-length poem "Brother to Dragons" can remind us of what provides a through-line in the story Smith tells: "Too much crowds in / To break the thread of discourse," Jefferson says, "and make me forget / That irony is always, and only, a trick of light in the late landscape."
Madison Hemings has to deal with being the offspring of the president and his enslaved mistress Sally. His focus, whose significance comes out in a verbal game he plays with Israel, is on what he can see and what lies to hand around him. His contempt for that blind mule unable to find its way to a grazing place confirms his preference for seeing over hearing. Israel says he would make the opposite choice: hearing connects us with people, vision with things, he points out.
Smith has titled his program note "Names," in which he demonstrates that so much of what endures about people is their names. Memorialization of black names has advanced in recent decades. Near the end of the play, there's a stunning recital from both men of names of enslaved friends and family. Madison's preference for seeing and Israel's for hearing blend as each name said into thin air brings forth to them images of the named people, excavated from the vaults of memory.
This episode as the play winds down gave me chills. I recalled my solitary visit decades ago to George Washington's plantation home, Mount Vernon. Though there were plenty of visitors around that day, I was nearly by myself as I stopped to gaze over the slave burial ground. About twenty feet away from me a middle-aged black man was doing the same thing. We were the only ones there for several minutes, leaning on a railing. What we were looking at was bare of any markers; it was a squarish plot of weedy grass.
"Not even their names!" the African-American visitor was saying aloud. The exclamation point fits, even though he kept saying it softly. "Not even their names!... Not even their names!" I wondered if I should say something sympathetic, but I couldn't think of anything.
Forty-five years later, I'm hearing his voice. And I still can't think of a response to that stranger that would have avoided banality or what we today might call virtue-signaling. I've concluded it was enough that for a little bit I had the poignant good fortune of being schooled in Black pain.
The schooling can be resumed for IRT's public as art imitates, shadows, and underlines life in "The Reclamation of Madison Hemings."
[Photo by Zach Rosing]