By John Lyle Belden
Names have power.
This is one of the oldest truths of both the supernatural/spiritual world and human society in general. A name is more than just a convenient personal label. You carry expectations and the weight of history in the words that signify your identity.
Thomas Jefferson was and is a very powerful name. It holds immense significance not only to the nation he helped create and lead, but also to the people whom he was related to, owned as property – and both.
The author of the Declaration of Independence and father of the University of Virginia is long gone when two men come to visit the grounds of Monticello, formerly the Jefferson plantation. While the new play, “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” by Charles Smith, in its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is a speculative recreation of the actions and conversations of James Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette Jefferson in 1866, these were both real men. They were born into slavery on that plot of land, and later, one freed by the former President’s will and the other by self-purchase, would come to reside near each other in Ohio. They gave first-hand recollections of their lives to a newspaper in 1873.
Another important name to remember is Sally Hemings, slave and “concubine” to Thomas Jefferson and mother of several children by him, including Madison.
In Smith’s play, Madison (Brian Anthony Wilson) and Israel (David Alan Anderson) have returned to Monticello, a run-down place with an absent caretaker – the only resident being the blind mule we hear braying offstage. Both have come looking for something. Israel hopes to find the lost grave of Sally Hemings, to thank her spirit for the kindness she gave him as a house-servant in his youth. He also hopes for news of his brother,* auctioned away from him, as were other family members, when Jefferson died deep in debt. Madison wants, at long last, something that is due to him. He thinks it must be inside that neglected mansion where he grew up, son of the master but still a slave.
A familiar face to IRT patrons, Anderson gives another wonderful performance, believably fitting into the skin and personality of Israel. He lends earnestness to his story of how he decided to assume the power of the name of the man who considered him property, and easily wears the pain of longing for a glimpse of his lost family – a brother, a child, any of them.
Wilson makes a welcome return to Indy as a man just as stubborn – and in his own way, blind – as the old mule. He portrays the firm confidence of a man on a mission, circumstance be damned. But will taking the mansion’s old wooden front doors, which he helped build but never had the privilege of entering the house through, be enough “reclamation” to soothe his soul?
Being light-skinned, Wilson reflects the fact that both Madison’s father and mother Sally’s father were white (odd irony for a society that supposedly abhorred miscegenation). In fact, other Hemings children opted to pass into White society. In their conversation, Madison and Israel refer to this as “passing over” – a euphemism we usually associate with death.
Through bouts of November rain and cold, and flashes of anger and humor, we get these men’s story, their frustrations, and their desire to see something better from a country that has wronged them so deeply. The recent Civil War affirmed their freedom but granted little else. We also discover the power of other names, of the many people who built the estate and died on these lands, power that recharges with every utterance of their names out loud. In the end, we find these two men were never alone.
Veteran director Ron OJ Parson brings together a powerful performance. Scenic Designer Shaun Motley’s realistic rustic set is perfectly balanced by Projections Designer Mike Tutaj’s images of the iconic Monticello mansion that flow from impressionistic to photo-real as befitting the drama before them.
Performances of this powerful work run through April 16 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.
*CORRECTION: Original post gave incorrect relation to the character