February 4, 2003
4:15 p.m. Informal Seminar
Playwright Sandra Seaton's most recent work is Sally, a one-woman drama that explores the thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings throughout her long relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Previously Seaton collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom on the operatic song cycle, From the Diary of Sally Hemings, which had its world premiere at the Library of Congress, on March 16, 2001. Writing in the Washington Post, reviewer Ronald Broun said that "Bolcom creates a complex, atmospheric musical biosphere for the turbulence of Hemings' alleged relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Playwright Sandra Seaton's text has subtle, penetrating power, and mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar's storytelling melded words and music with convincing, always graceful ease."
Sally Hemings has become one of the newly rediscovered stars of American history, a slave who served as Thomas Jefferson's mistress, accompanied him on his diplomatic assignment to Paris, and (judging by DNA evidence) bore him at least one child. Unfortunately for historians, Hemings left no diary behind. In order to bring this enigmatic and fascinating figure back to life, Sandra Seaton created a fictitious diary for Hemings and used it to help her write the libretto of the new song cycle.
From the Diary of Sally Hemings was commissioned by Music Accord, Inc, a national consortium of presenters including The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, the Fortas Chamber Music Series at the Kennedy Center, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, among others.
Sandra Seaton is the recipient of the Theodore Ward Prize for New African American Playwrights for her play The Bridge Party (1989), which has been anthologized in Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women (1998), edited by Judy Stephens and Kathy Perkins. The play portrays a group of Southern black women who gather for a weekly bridge game against a background of lynchings and house-to-house searches. The Bridge Party played to sold-out houses in 2000 when it was performed at Michigan State University. Leading actress Ruby Dee performed in another production of the play at the University at Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Bridge Party has been described by The State News as a "careful look at women's wisdom and strength that dissects racial prejudice and its impact on everyday life."
Seaton's other works include the plays The Will, about the struggles of a black Tennessee family during Reconstruction, and Do You Like Philip Roth?, about African-American students at a Midwestern university during the Civil Rights Movement. Sandra Seaton is a Professor of English at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, MI.
|Notes from the playwright. . .
My portrait of Sally Hemings is based not only on a study of the growing historical literature on Jefferson and Sally Hemings but also on my own family history. Growing up as an African American in the South before the civil rights era, I heard many family stories about relationships between blacks and whites outside the law. Some were love relationships; other were exploitative--some were probably both.
The Sally Hemings dramatized here is a woman who seized the opportunity to enjoy French fashion and culture, a woman whose intellect and taste were limited neither by her legal status nor racial categorization. The experience of Paris is central to my Sally Hemings. She never forgot either the freedom it promised or the wider world it offered. The Monticello overseer, a not particularly sensitive observer, remembers her talking about Paris in his memoirs. The Africa passed down in family stories and the Paris she lived in provide my Sally Hemings with an awareness of societies and standards beyond her own time and place. She will never accept slavery for herself or her children as natural or inevitable. She is a proud woman who refuses to join the conspiracy to ignore her "Bloodlines!"--just as her descendants continued to refuse until finally the whole world acknowledged their claims.
Scholars are unsure whether the historical Sally Hemings could read or write. My own reading of the documents leads me to suspect that Sally was indeed literate; since there is incontrovertible evidence that other members of the Hemings family were, the possibility that Sally Hemings could read is historically plausible. Historians have often described Sally as flighty or irresponsible based on the contemporary testimony of white observers; perhaps, however, the quality that bothered people like Abigail Adams was Sally's ability to think and reason beyond her "station."
My view of Sally Hemings is based on the facts of her situation as they are known to us. It seems significant, for example, that no scholar has unearthed any rumors linking Jefferson to any other woman during the years he apparently lived with Sally Hemings. Jefferson's private life has been scrutinized by political adversaries in his own time and by scholars in our own time so closely that if there were any hint of an illicit relationship with any other woman, it would have been known. If there were evidence that Sally Hemings had been only one of Jefferson's sexual partners among many, then one would have to look at the relationships in an entirely different light.
Jefferson's apparent faithfulness to Sally over many years suggest that Sally Hemings was more common-law wife than sexual plaything. I suspect that Sally Hemings influenced Thomas Jefferson as much as he influenced her. . .
For family background information, please see the Monticello web site listed below.
Zabryna Guevara received a B.A. in Theatre from Fordham University. Her face has been recently seen along NY train cars in ads for TCI and performing with the sketch comedy group Fried Eggs. She recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival with the film Whispers. Her television credits include: Law & Order ("B*tch" airdate February 26), The Sopranos, As the World Turns as well as commercials for TCI and Maryland Lottery with Jim Gaffigan. Theatre credits include: Santa Concepcion, The Public; God, Sex & Blue Water, Lark Studio; "Irving Berlin Revue", Inside Broadway; Virtual Souls, La Mama.
Langdon Brown is the former Chair of the Theatre Department at UAlbany, whose professional directing credits include the world premiere of A Scent of Almonds on Theatre Row in New York the world premiere of his translation of Le Systeme Ribadier by Feydeau at the Overground Theatre in London, stock productions of A Flea in her Ear and Plaza Suite, and a revival of Butley in the London Fringe. His university and college directing credits include the world premiere of John and Elizabeth Fuller's Not Just a Love Story, the American premiere of Ladies in Waiting by Canadian playwright Ellen Fox and productions of Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Overmeyer's On the Verge, Sheridan's The Rivals, Shaw's Arms and the Man, Feydeau's Hotel Paradiso, Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, Pirandello's Enrico IV, Moliere's Tartuffe and The Learned Ladies, Orton's What the Butler Saw, and Wycherly's The Country Wife. He has also managed and produced stock seasons in New York and New England.
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