Sally and Tom at the Castillo

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The Castillo Theatre opens Black History Month with Sally and Tom: The American Way

There are different points of view as to whether Thomas Jefferson
actually had a love affair with his slave Sally Hemmings.  Many books have been written on the subject
debating the pros and cons of the matter.  Descendants of Hemmings have claimed that t
wo of Sally Hemming’s children, Eston and Madison, orally
stated that Thomas Jefferson was their father.  Thus, their paternity by
Thomas Jefferson has been widely supported and believed by Hemmings side of the
family.  DNA testing via the male-line,
indicates a genetic link between the Jefferson line and Hemming genetic line,
indicating that an individual with the Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston
Hemmings.  Although there were 25 adult
male Jeffersons who carried the chromosome at the time, it’s assumed the most
logic conclusion is that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemming for sure and
therefore it’s supposed he fathered his other children by Sally Hemmings.

As part of Black History month, the
Castillo Theatre, located at 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, has
brought to the stage their musical portrayal of “Sally and Tom: The American
Way” via Fred Newman’s book version and lyrics. 
Presented in a rather unique theatrical setting the production is kept moving
literally.  Starring Ava Jenkins as Sally
Hemming; Adam Kemmerer as Thomas Jefferson, Sean Patrick Gibbons as antagonist
James T, Callender, and Brian D. Hicks as Madison Hemmings.  Both David Nackman and Miss Jacqueline Salit portray
James Madison.  The production runs until
March 25th.

While the play portrays Jefferson as
a rather complicated man, it covers his hypocritical and rather cowardly
side.  Reported as being opposed to
slavery and even having stated he found the institution of slavery an
abominable crime, Jefferson himself held slaves on his Monticello plantation in
Virginia. Although it was not uncommon for the rich aristocracy to rape and
force female slaves into sexual relationships as Jefferson did to Sally in
Paris when she was 17 years old, it was one of those well kept private secrets
never mentioned publicly.  In fact, it was
considered bad form to talk about what even the slave master’s white wives, who
while averting their eyes to the truth, could evidence given the numerous slave
children who resembled their husbands. That is why when Jefferson’s political
opponent and journalist James T. Callender wrote an article claiming Sally was
Jefferson’s concubine during Jefferson’s first term as President, Jefferson gave
no response, despite widely spread publicity on the affair.   

While Jefferson never freed Sally,
(his daughter did) Sally repeatedly begged him to free his children.  He finally freed Madison on his 21st
birthday and its rumored he eventually freed all his children. It’s reported
that Jefferson drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of
enslaved Africans and proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the
Northwest territories, with the hopes of eventual emancipation.  Yet, after having proposed these ordinances,
Jefferson primarily remained silent; neither making further anti-slavery
statements nor taking any significant public action to change the course of
slavery.  Jefferson’s contradictory
nature remains a puzzle to historians. 

Initially I found the first half of the production slow moving, however it
picked up considerably during the course of the show, directly challenging the
hypocrisy of America itself in terms of its pretense of “equal justice and
liberty for all,” when it clearly practices inequity.  Songs in the musical such as “Enslaved by the
Color of Our Skin,” “Rich and Poor Hypocrisy,” “The Coward’s Song,” and “The
American Way,” highlight America’s hypocrisy and penchant for unequal treatment
of its non-white citizens.  The song “The
Beginning of America’s Night,” focuses on White America’s fear of those of
darker hue.  Their revulsion of black
people and other people of color is demonstrated by their deeds, declarations
and an institutionalized hatred that continues to exist to this day, despite
denial to the contrary.  Given Jefferson’s
anti-slavery position he would be delighted to see a black man as President and
perhaps disappointed to see although President Obama expressed “change,” little
has changed, given the unbridled hatred, disrespect, hostility, and disgusting
behavior demonstrated by many members of Jefferson’s own race toward the
presidency of Barack Obama. Jefferson would be horrified by the condition of
America; its joblessness, fear mongering, wars, dismantling of citizens rights, the
economic condition brought about by the loss of manufacturing, greed and
corruption and an educational system that ranks lower than some third world
countries. He would be shocked by the complacency of the American people whose
complete ambivalence and lack of self-governance has turned America into an
oligarchy instead of a democracy. 
Jefferson would find it unimaginable that greedy corporations have
become multi-nationalist betraying America and nationalism for the sake of
profit.

“Sally and Tom: The American Way,” displays the inequity of early America,
while reminding us that inequity still prevails.  Although a hidden love affair between two
people, Sally and Tom demonstrates
that nothing hidden remains so forever. 
Yet, it reminds us it’s not too late for America to learn the lessons of
its past.  Go see “Sally and Tom” and let’s
begin the collective work that brings true equity and a better America in
future.

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