Thomas Jefferson was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the third President of the United States and a slaveholder who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men are created equal, possess 600 slaves.
One of the famous stories about Jefferson concerns a controversial relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who was also his sister-in-law. Hemings’ mother was of mixed race and Sally’s father was John Wayles, the father of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha. Sally was a half-sister to Martha and considered three-quarters white.
The historical debate over whether or not there was a sexual relationship between them continues; however, most 21st century historians agree that Jefferson fathered one or more of Sally’s children. One of these children is the central theme of the play by playwright Charles Smith, The reconquest of Madison Hemings.
We had the pleasure of traveling to Indianapolis to see this play again at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The world premiere of The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is the story of one of Sally Hemings’ children named Madison, who refused to accept her father’s surname, Thomas Jefferson, – choosing instead to be called Hemings.
Although slavery was abolished in America, many slaves never felt the true meaning of freedom. Madison returns to neglected Monticello after the Civil War ends in 1866. He struggles with anger and resentment at being seen as a Jefferson. I only ever knew one white man named Hemings, he recalls. His friend and former slave footman, Israel Jefferson, also known as Israel Gillette (slave parents Jane and Edward Gillett), returned to Monticello (“Little Mountain”) in search of his brother, Moses. Israel bought his freedom from Thomas Walker Gilmer and took Jefferson’s surname at the suggestion of the clerk when registering his freedom.
Seeing the Monticello, Madison’s bitterness grows as he recounts the days of his youth, imagining how he, along with his brothers, Beverly, Eston and sister Harriet, were never allowed to live in the mansion . Yet at the same time, his old friend Isreal, whose fond memories reflect more honor and family, neutralizes his horrific time in servitude. At the start of the play, Isreal inquires whether her brother Moses was buried in the field among the hundreds of slaves who lived and died at Monticello, but when night fell they sought refuge.
Madison decided he wanted to sleep in the vacant Monticello mansion, but Israel was against it. Israel felt honored to have Jefferson’s surname, did not want to dishonor the estate by trespassing, fearing serious inconvenience. Madison, who was still harboring, resented as an unwanted bastard child of Jefferson, was determined for revenge, entered the house, stealing whatever inheritance he could. As they both battled feelings from the past, their lives became the backdrop for a story few knew existed. And those in power, who wrote the stories of our history, chose to ignore them.
Part of the IRT’s INclusion series: Celebrating the diversity of narratives, The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is the story of two formerly enslaved Black Americans and explores the brutal history of slavery in the United States. This two-person play features David Alan Anderson and Brian Anthony Wilson. Anderson, a native of Indianapolis, where his association with the Indiana Repertory Theater began in 1990, has performed at Chicago’s Writers Theater (Stick Fly) and The First Deep (Victory Gardens Theatre). He was superb as upper-class aristocratic Israel Jefferson, a black man who never felt his owners respected his pedigree or his Jefferson name. Instead, he was a black man who understood the facade given to him as a man in charge of other black people, but never his freedom. Another fantastic performance was given by Brian Anthony Wilson, who played Madison Hemings, the son of Sally Hemings, who was furious with feelings of hatred towards Jefferson after hearing his mother being attacked by him when she was a teenager. Jefferson was in his forties. Anderson and Wilson’s chemistry on stage was amazing, making this premiere a must at the Indiana Repertory Theater.
In Chicago, Ron OJ Parson is synonymous with directing exceptional plays. Parson is a master in his field and brings out the realism in his characters, which keeps the audience captivated by every performance, making it the best in theater.
Playwright Charles Smith, originally from the Southside of Chicago, started at the Victory Gardens Theater in 1985, as an intern. Many of Smith’s plays discuss various historical contexts to explore contemporary issues of race, identity, and politics in America. The rehabilitation of Madison Hemings is another great example of his superb storytelling skills.
Madison’s reclamation is a fascinating historical story that America needs to hear. Our history is filled with adverse incidents where enslaved children were fathered by white slaves who were not recognized as legitimate offspring worthy of family honors and privileges. Playwright Charles Smith does a masterful job of sharing this untold American story of a black child who never felt wanted by his famous white father – a hidden story of our society, which must be passed down to cure the ills of the ‘humanity.
In 1873, Madison Hemings, at age out of 68, dictated his memoir about his mother Sally Hemings to an Ohio newspaper called the Pike County Republican, which published a series titled “Life among the humble. The Pike County Republican also included Isreal Jefferson’s memoir published the same year as a Madison Hemings memoir, claiming Madison’s account that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children.
The Indiana Repertory Theater is an incredible building, and this play is just the fabulous premiere of its 2021-2022 season. Costume designer Dana Rebecca Woods did a great job creating the period attire for “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings,” which helped pull together the visual setting of 1866.
Thank you for the warm welcome given to us by Kerry Barmann and Danielle Dove from the IRT.
Let’s Play recommends The Claim by Madison Hemings at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.
Indiana Repertory Theater
The reconquest of Madison Hemings
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
From March 23 to April 16, 2022