‘Love?’ to Explore Jefferson-Hemings Relationship

June 12, 2013 3:09 PM1 comment

Did Thomas Jefferson have an intimate relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings? It’s still a controversial question, now nearly 200 years after the founding father’s death. Today, historians overwhelmingly concur that Jefferson was the father to Hemings’ six children, swayed by recent DNA evidence to support the claim, but when biographer Fawn M. Brodie made the assertion in the 1970s, she was met with fierce criticism. Now, while academics agree that the relationship did occur, a small portion of the public still hotly denies that Jefferson had such a relationship with one of his slaves.

In this disquieting tempest of race, sex, and power, playwright PJ Thiessen found a story that needed to be told.

“It’s not going to go away unless we talk about it,” Thiessen said. “I think it hits a raw nerve when it comes to racial tension with most Americans because he was a founding father, and a very beloved founding father.”

With musical collaborator Alvin Smithson, Thiessen wrote “What Kind of Love?”, a production that depicts the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings and examines its impact. The musical, with tunes inspired by the popular music of the day and updated for modern audiences, made its debut at Creative Cauldron last summer with a sold-out show. Then, a few songs from the musical were performed with some illuminating narration. But now, Thiessen will be workshopping “What Kind of Love?” at Creative Cauldron for a three-night engagement and staging the fullest production yet of the musical.

In “What Kind of Love?” Hemings and Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, are imagined as the narrators of the story, recalling their memories of Jefferson as elderly women after Jefferson has died and his Monticello has been sold. Their enacted memories are the product of years of research conducted by Thiessen into the lives of the Jefferson and Hemings families, gleaned from the historical record as well as oral histories.

Contradictory information emerged when she considered the different accounts, so Thiessen had to find her own truth within those conflicts. Guided by the old adage “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” she tried to imagine the very real figures who would become her characters – the widower whose dying wife makes him swear to never remarry, the slave who enters into a relationship knowing the constraints of her social standing and servitude, the child who discovers that his father is also his master. For her approach, Thiessen believes the play is sensitive to its characters and is compelling without compromising truth.

Thiessen welcomes both dissent and agreement with the choices she’s made in crafting her story, and hopes that wherever its audiences stand on the matter, the play will foster further study of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

“I’m hoping they’ll walk away knowing a little bit more about the story, and as we can’t present the entire story in a very short space of time, I’m hoping that some of them will go and read about it, and make their own opinions,” Thiessen said. “I hope they go back and look at this and consider how racial prejudice was a social ill of the time that caused a lot of the problems that were going on. I’m hoping people walk away and say, ‘Wow, there’s things in that story that still affect us today.’”

“What Kind of Love?” runs June 14 – 16. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. each night. The musical will be performed at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 S. Maple Ave. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $18 for students and seniors. For more information, visit creativecauldron.org.

  • Richard Dixon

    Thiessen’s assertion that she has captured “enacted memories” from her “years of research” is authorial hubris.

    The central difficulty with an analysis of the historical evidence whether Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings is the lack of any personal contact between the two. During the thirty years that she lived at Monticello, there is no record of any intervention with Jefferson, not even a glance.

    The historical record of the personality and quotidian existence of Hemings is virtually nonexistent. There is no contemporaneous statement that she was pregnant in France or that she had a child after she arrived in Virginia. During the years that Hemings lived at Monticello, none of the family, the multiple visitors to Monticello, or the slaves that could write, ever made the claim that any of the Hemings children were fathered by Jefferson. Accounts, such as Annette Gordon Reed’s “The Hemings of Monticello,” are based on a premise that a relationship did exist and how that interaction took place is then imagined.

    The only detailed examination of all the evidence was made by thirteen academic scholars whose analysis and conclusion is contained in “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission,” edited by Robert Turner. Other works that have examined this issue are “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson” by William Hyland, “Jefferson Vindicated” by Cynthia Burton, and a recent book, “Framing the Legend” by Mark Holowchak.

    The webpage of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJheritage.org) also offers a perspective that a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is devoid of any definitive proof.

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