The Bay Area production of “Thomas and Sally” has ripped scabs off of old and fresh wounds.
As Roman Polanski returns to the headlines accused by Renate Langer of raping her when she was a teenager, we don’t see anyone romanticizing her childhood trauma or that of Samantha Geimer. Yet when it comes to Thomas Jefferson’s “relationship” with slave Sarah “Sally” Hemings, somehow “Thomas and Sally” playwright, producers, and audiences have found room to speculate.
Historically we know that in the Jezebel stereotype, “the African woman truly enjoyed being ravaged by her master...so that abusing her was simply satisfying her natural desires…. [T]he Jezebel image sustained the domination of white men” (Simms). We know that there is a long history of sexual exploitation of Black women and that “Black rape survivors are blamed more and are [as consequence] less likely to disclose their assaults than other women.” We know that children cannot consent to sex with adults. We should know that slave children are unequivocally unwilling participants in sexual acts with their slaveholders.
Instead “Thomas and Sally” explores the sexual exploitation of a young slave as if there is room for more than horror.
Sally Hemings cannot cry out, but there is yet audible pain, personal outrage, and shared disgust.
Tears have been flowing today. When Marin Theatre Company's horrifying ad portraying Sally Hemings as a seductress to an innocent-looking Thomas Jefferson appeared in my newsfeed last week, I was hurt. I was hurt further when I read Marin Theatre Company's flippant, gaslighting, and callous responses when we Black women cried out to them about the ad. Did they not care that we're stereotyped as being hypersexual and that they were perpetuating that stereotype? Did they not care that there are people who believe Black women and girls can't be raped because we like sex too much? Did they not care that they were making life more dangerous for us by perpetuating these stereotypes? They told us to wait and see the show. They asked us if we'd read the script. I read the script. When I read the line where a 14-year-old enslaved Sally Hemings says that the more sex she gets from Thomas Jefferson, the more she wants it, I wanted to cry. When I read the line where Sally Hemings' mother teaches Martha Jefferson where her clitoris is so she can climax faster while masturbating, I wanted to cry. Here we had the wise Black mammy character trope, this time teaching the White woman about sex. The managing director at Marin Theatre Company told me they'd release an official statement to address our pain. That was seven days ago. After three days of seeing no statement, I wrote to ask about it, and my email went ignored. Now today I read a review in the SF Chronicle that completely glosses over our pain. I feel like nobody cares. I know that's not true; several individuals have reached out to me in support. But when an entire organization is willing to stomp on us and exacerbate our pain and invite the SF Chronicle to do the same, it hurts. I spent this evening in bed crying. Marin Theatre Company claims they were telling Sally Hemings' story, giving her a voice, but her character doesn't even appear in the first act, and even the SF Chronicle critic wrote that the "play gives comparatively short shrift to Hemings' two big dilemmas." In this way, the play perfectly mirrors the voices of Black women who have appealed to Marin Theatre Company. Marin Theatre Company gave our voices short shrift while patting themselves on the back, and my tears have been flowing today.
Pedophilia's excuse for dehumanizing black girls is that they are always thought of as older than they are. To blame a black girl for her own rape like "Thomas and Sally" does--to sexualize her and not only say she asked for it but that she tempted her rapist--is a slap in the face. Sally Hemings was 14 years old when Thomas Jefferson started preying on her. Portraying their relationship as consensual isn't an innocent reinterpretation of history, it's dehumanizing. "Thomas and Sally" erases Sally's victimhood as a child preyed upon by a man she could not afford to say no to. I refuse to let an audience clap at a black girl's trauma while uplifting her rapist.
Tonya Marie Amos
African Americans survived hundreds of years of being raped, beaten, branded, sold, watching our loved ones being beaten, raped, disfigured and sold. Black women have been kidnapped, raped and sold, experimented on by the nation's first gynecologist, used as sex slaves to entire families, and all legally. We prayed to be sold to someone less brutal, less demeaning, less sadistic than the person that owned us before. Children from a young age were groomed to do back breaking work in the fields, groomed to attend to the house and white people to their liking, and groomed to be sex slaves. Sally was 14 years old. She was part of a continuum of generations of rape by people that legally owned her family. People à la Dred Scott decision with "no rights that a white man is bound to honor" did whatever they could to stay alive, keep their families alive, intact, and maintain any ounce of dignity that they could. Jefferson did not free Sally (regardless of his promises), so there was no ability to consent. Black women painfully muse about her ability to leave bondage while in Paris, knowing that leaving would have doomed her to never see her enslaved children or family again. We feel that pain deeply and empathize with being in such a horrific place.
This play uses Black women's pain and suffering as a plaything to explore “what if's” and to be artistically challenging. The artwork of Sally seductively looking at the camera made my skin crawl. Then watching MTC’s repeated and condescending head patting remarks to women who were reaching out in pain and offense made me physically want to vomit. As a professional dancer, I understand that art is best when it is impactful, causes conversations and forces us to think. But theaters have a responsibility to be culturally sensitive when producing work and not reinforce societal stereotypes that actually hurt people. Black women deal with the consequences of these stereotypes on a daily basis from the time we get up to the time we go to bed. These stereotypes are painful and dangerous for our well being and safety. This is why having a diverse staff at every level of production from direction, to costuming, to marketing, is so important. History has told us that our pain and abuse doesn't matter. In their attempt to be edgy and push us forward by doing diverse projects, MTC (part of a predominantly white, wealthy community) is merely reinforcing that our bodies, our suffering and our protest to abuse does not matter.
In 2017 we have a president that Black women actively denounced as terrifying, and yet the majority of whites who voted cast a ballot on his behalf. White supremacists are now attacking in broad daylight and on film, and folks that don’t look like us are confused at how we got here. So my suggestion is to ask a Black or Native American woman. We fight daily for our dignity and are a solid barometer of where we are as a nation. We feel the full brunt of a racist, hyper-masculine country that is all too comfortable patting folks in pain on the head and telling us to go away. The story of abuse of our women is imprinted in our cultural memory and our genetic code. We are telling you that this story of an enslaved woman longingly adoring the man that legally owned her body and all of her family's bodies, a man who was part of a lineage of serial rapists of young, vulnerable people physically makes us sick. We are disgusted at being America's plaything, whether it's in the theatre or out in the streets. Just stop already. Black women matter.
Should I really be surprised? Art. Life. Who gives a fuck when black women are raped? Not universities. Not your friends. Not the police. Not the courts. That this shitty play is being produced in the not-at-all liberal San Francisco Bay Area is a horrifically terrible metaphor. I was raped late at night in one of SF’s theaters when I accidentally drank not really that much with the stage manager and one crew asshole. Was I roofied? Dunno. But I remember being face down on the floor feeling unable to stand, saying I was unable to stand, and these two – was it pre-planned? – picking me up and setting me on an air mattress (why not the nearby couch?). The stage manager left. It’s not hard to guess what happened next. In the morning, I blamed myself. Why? Because society blames me. I shouldn’t have been drinking. Had I been flirtatious ever? I don’t think so. Still, I tried to make it normal, consensual. But I knew it wasn’t. I cried a lot. Lost weight. Had to see my rapist every show ‘cause I was acting in it.
All of the history that tells white men they can do what they want to black women put me here. All of the characters on TV who have drunk sex and pretend it’s consensual put me here. Penny with a string of whomevers on Big Bang Theory. James Franco [as Paul Leotard] who was berated for being raped on The Mindy Project. Now a 14 year old slave. A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD SLAVE! I want to scream in their faces, tear their eyes out. And the people who say, “But it was written by a black man.” Fuck you. As if black men don’t rape black women. As if that “I can’t be racist because some of my best friends are black” bullshit flies. Yes, you can marry women and be misogynist. Yes, you can wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and be racist. Yes, you can be a black male playwright and discount the lives and experiences of black women. And no, none of this will stop that asshole from being successful. Too many white people love black folks who shit on their own, who make white folks feel okay about the nightmares they inflict. Slavery was a nightmare. That white master jumping you was a nightmare. Shouldn’t someone be trying to take Thomas Jefferson off of money? Maybe Sally Hemings’ face should replace his, with a thousand black women slaves standing with her.
The softening of slavery has become an American pastime. Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly softened slavery when he stated that slaves who built the White House “were well fed and had decent lodgings.” The Texas Education Board softened slavery when it approved a high school textbook that describes slaves as “immigrants” and “workers.” Former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson softened slavery in her defense of Confederate statutes arguing that “bad history is still good history.” The play “Thomas and Sally” is also softening of slavery.
“Thomas and Sally” is a loose interpretation of historical facts, a work of “historical fiction” that focuses on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Bradshaw portrays Hemings as both oppressed as a slave and agentic in her relationship with Jefferson. The problem with this approach is that true consent is impossible in a master-slave relationship, so this play has the effect of softening slavery by diminishing the horror of rape.
On pre-Antebellum plantations and farms, Black women were at the mercy of white men since the rape of slaves was legal, expected, and common. Many masters also used rape as a tool to improve their economic prospects by producing more slaves to work the land (Pokorak). Some slaves –“fancy maids”– were explicitly bought and sold for sexual service, and would endure thousands of rapes during their lifetime (Baptist). Evidence of the routine rape of Black women over a century ago is apparent in the U.S. today. An estimated three-fourths of Black people in the U.S. today are descendants of at least one white ancestor – mostly from rape (Feagin), including former First Lady Michelle Obama. To define sexual relations between masters and slaves as anything but rape assumes that mutual consent is possible when it fact it is not. True consent is impossible when one party is the legal property of another.
The public’s fascination with the question of whether Hemings loved Jefferson, a fascination that enables a play like “Thomas and Sally” to be written and staged, is telling. It reveals our desire to see slavery and rape in a softer light instead of seeing it for what it is: in this case, a middle-aged slave master making sexual advances on a young teenage girl whom he owned as property.