As a student of history and an advocate for social justice, I found “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings,” simply fascinating on a variety of levels. Written by playwright Charles Smith, the drama is making its world premiere at Indiana Repertory Theatre’s OneAmerica Stage. I attended the production’s opening night on Friday.
In view of the Black Lives Matter social movement and its continuing aftermath, as an arts writer, I have been especially conscious of how the performing arts have addressed the issue of systemic racism within its ranks. It’s important to note that even before the BLM movement’s demand for racial reckoning fully erupted, local organizations such as Fonseca Theatre Company, Phoenix Theatre, both founded by late activist-visionary Bryan Fonseca, and the IRT were already focusing on racial inclusiveness as part of their mission and values.
And as it pertains to IRT, in particular, with “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings,” Indiana’s oldest professional theatre is literally putting its money where its mouth is. Not only is the play written by a Black person (IRT has produced three of Smith’s other plays as well), the production’s director, assistant director, cast, and the majority of its creative team are African American as well, which is, frankly, how it should be.
The play is based on historical facts, so make sure you read all the excellent, informative program notes while you are waiting for the curtain to go up. It incorporates multiple themes, including family, identity, ancestry, place, honoring the dead, and of course, racism and slavery.
“The Reclamation (the process of claiming something back, reasserting a right, or the reclamation of our shared history) of Madison Hemings” is set in Monticello, Virginia during a four-day period in 1866. Two former slaves, Madison Hemings, the son of slave Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and Israel Gillette Jefferson (he took his master’s last name) return to uninhabited Monticello, now in sad ruins. Being there triggers painful memories for the two friends, who grapple with conflicting, contradictory feelings and differing perspectives regarding their individual experiences. Hemings carries deep-seated hostility and anger regarding his biological mother and father, while Jefferson is nostalgic about the place he considered home and the people who lived there, despite the fact he was enslaved.
As mentioned previously, Smith’s play truly was engrossing, but at the same time, there were plot features, fiction or not, that stretched credulity, including an incident of animal cruelty which was as disturbing as anything I have ever seen on any stage. To his credit, however, Smith’s script, which deals with the tragedy of slavery also incorporates humor, making the play not only educational, but also entertaining.
Masterfully directed by Chicago-based director Ron OJ Parson, the two-hander stars IRT veteran David Alan Anderson as Israel Jefferson, and Brian Anthony Wilson as Madison Hemings. The actors are wholly convincing in conveying camaraderie and the bond of their shared trauma of slavery.
Scenic designer Shaun Motley’s expansive set, depicting the grounds of Monticello with Jefferson’s once-stately mansion portrayed on a hand-painted backdrop, is simply magnificent, as is Jared Gooding’s lighting design, Christopher Kriz’s sound design and score, and Mike Tutaj’s projections design. The total effect is cinematic, capturing the wide breadth and scope of Smith’s story.
During a time when our country still wrestles with race relations, a re-examination of history and this story point out the hypocrisy of the slave owner and father of our country, who famously wrote “All men are created equal.” The perversion of that ideal still exists today. This is a must-see for anyone truly desiring equality and equity for all.
See “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” in-person March 23- April 16 or watch the livestream April 11-24. The show is approximately 2 hours and includes a 15-minute intermission. Tickets and showtimes are available at IRTlive.com.