One area of life I missed during the pandemic was attending live theater. Luckily, I have been able to get out and see a few plays this year. The one that has resonated with me the most thus far this year is “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” by Charles Smith. This two-man play centers around Madison Hemings, son of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and Israel (Gillette) Jefferson who was enslaved by President Jefferson at Monticello. Although both Black men were enslaved by Jefferson, they had a different reckoning with who Jefferson was, the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and the fact that he also enslaved people including his own children.
Madison was freed in Jefferson’s will, but Israel and many other enslaved Africans were sold on the auction block. Despite their different paths to leaving Monticello, they both end up living close to each other in Ohio.
This play centers around them returning to Monticello in hopes of Israel being able to reunite his brother who had also been sold. Like many enslaved people, Israel was hoping that this would be the year they would find each other.
In the midst of this hope, Madison had to deal with the feelings he had for his father. A few times during the play, Madison said, “I’m leaving here with somethin'” because he felt he had the right to something, especially with the status of his father. He couldn’t understand why Israel would take on the surname Jefferson especially since he, as Jefferson’s son, did not. There was a part of the play where Madison came back to where they had camped with a door off of the home at Monticello because he was going to leave there with something.
Although this part elicited a slight chuckle from the audience, the symbolism of the action cut to the core. What did enslaved Africans get after they were freed? Even if their father was the president of the United States, it did not mean they were getting anything.
Madison and Israel also discussed passing which is when Black people who are fair-skinned decide to live as white people. Madison could not wrap his head around this choice to which Israel retorted that as a free person you have the “freedom to choose.”
The freedom to choose did not eliminate the pain of being separated from loved ones or the blows of racism, it just meant the freedom on how to deal with it.
This play provided the right amount of emotional tension, reflection, and levity (sipping whiskey should definitely be sipped) to engage the audience in the legacy of slavery and how it impacted Black people in various ways.
I also must add that David Alan Anderson (Israel Jefferson) and Brian Anthony Wilson (Madison Hemings) were spot-on actors who brought these ideas to life.