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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sneakin' Sally Through the Stereotypes

From the Theater Vault Dept., Part One: While looking for a vintage Hallowe’en tale (I’ll post it in the coming days), I was pleased to be reminded of two world-premiere theater events that took place around this time of year in 1986. Here’s my review of Capital Rep’s Dusky Sally, followed by an interview with one of its stars.


SALLY HEMINGS DOESN’T make it into many history books, yet it’s a pretty good bet that this country’s third First Lady was black. Thomas Jefferson didn’t marry her: he didn’t even own up to the affair. But he seems to have lived quite domestically with this attractive slave at Monticello and fathered several children by her.

Dusky Sally, which is having its world premiere at Albany’s Capital Repertory Company, gives the story the fictional sheen of an epic drama while it investigates Jefferson’s attempt to reconcile his revolution for the sake of equality even as he kept a stable of slaves.

It’s a rich issue, and playwright Granville Burgess squares off immediately with a dialogue between Jefferson (brilliantly portrayed by Pine MacDonald) and the foppish Marquis de Lafayette (Richard Maynard). Some passages from Jefferson’s Notes on the Slate of Virginia are called into question, passages that reveal heavy racism.

It’s a pat setup, telegraphing all too clearly what’s to come. Jefferson is in Paris, minister to France, attended by a slave named James (L. Peter Callender). When Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy (Katherine Leask), arrives for a visit, she brings James’ sister Sally as a companion. And as James is drawn more and more into the steadily burgeoning revolution, Sally finds herself increasingly attracted to the statesman.

Erica Gimpel (of Fame fame) creates the role with a virtuoso mixture of determination and innocence, and a gentle manner of delivery that is the opposite of the declamations of Jefferson and Lafayette—and, for that matter, James. To her brother she is affectionately known as “Rabbit,” an acknowledgment of her cleverness and charm.

Burgess is on all-American ground with this subject: inter-ethnic bonding has haunted the country’s consciousness as long as there has been a native literature, and our favorite stories attempt to exculpate the guilt of the white oppressors. But the issues in this story call for anger, not guilt, and the absence of the anger of, say, Master Harold ... and the boys reveals Burgess’s very middle-class sensibility. The play wants to be admired for its liberal enlightenment and tries too hard to make friends. We open and close with James’ poignant rendering of “Lonesome Valley,” but behind it is Phil Ochs’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

Erica Gimpel
It’s a play of pronouncements: “Slavery is easy, Rabbit,” declares James. “It’s freedom that’s hard.” Sally: “What do you think God was measuring when he traced our lives?” Jefferson: “We must have a country where men and women of different hues may embrace in public!” There seems to be one eye on the history books and another on a television camera; or, to put it another way, Burgess is so obsessed with his subject that he forgets to supply the subtlety the stage demands and goes instead for the sledgehammer effect of the mini-series.

Beautiful language flows from these people. They’re stylized dream characters on a fictional landscape that isn’t complete. The hotel in Paris has only the suggestions of arch and window. Monticello is a few brick columns. When, toward the end, self-righteous Sally launches into a detailed speculation of Jefferson’s thoughts during sex with her, it’s as if John Updike suddenly wandered onto the set, confusing our Rabbits.

Burgess has fallen into the trap common to middle-class whites who take up a cause for the sake of cause-taking: He’s afraid to show us the faults and flaws of the oppressed. Sally is goodness and perfection, and her brother is a firebrand. but awfully lovable. Those stereotypes can be as insidious as the ones he seeks to avoid.

Jefferson, too, is kept at a distance. He is a man of science who keeps meticulous records of weather conditions, but he is also a man of the earth, interested in nature, and finds a bond with Sally in that common interest.

But the conflict between the two is ultimately one of history. It just might have happened this way, the play tells us. Aren’t you ashamed?

It would have been interesting for Burgess to speculate on the source of Jefferson’s views on race and slavery. Jefferson is presented as one who moved many miles toward an enlightenment that he attempted to implement legislatively, and yet he ultimately could not take responsibility for his own actions.

But were his actions so unique? Sally herself was the product of a union between master and slave, white and black: there is the fascinating possibility that her destiny was as tragically ordained as that of any modern abused kid who grows up to recycle the abuse.

Where Dusky Sally succeeds is as a love story, a sentimental Gothic about a doomed union, an interracial Lolita. Remove the historical personages and a compelling story remains, and the poetry of the language becomes more appropriate.

It’s a field day for the actors, and the casting is splendid; all of the above-named bring us convincing characterizations. MacDonald and Gimpel make sparks as the lovers, and Leask turns from imp to shrew as she shoulders the responsibility of being the play’s one clear-cut villain (a responsibility which we then, by extension, are invited to share).

Socially conscious Capital Rep gave us the world premiere of Toni Morrison’s first play, Dreaming Emmett, last season, in which the vigilante killing of Emmett Till was investigated. It had the bright energy of anger, harnessed by a writer in control of her material.

To substitute mere moralizing, however, has the suburban sincerity of a lawn jockey painted white. Burgess needs to take another look at his own xenophobia, make peace with some fears and nightmares, and redraw these characters as fallible humans with their flaws intact.

Dusky Sally
Directed by Jack Chandler
Capital Repertory Company

Metroland Magazine, Oct. 23, 1986


MURDER AND MISCEGENATION ARE the backbone of the miniseries and bodice-ripper: this weekend, they are the bases of two theatrical world premieres, plays that derive from history. The murder took place at the Cherry Hill mansion in Albany and the story was suppressed for many years. The miscegenation was the union of Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, a union that might well have given us the first black first lady.

The plays are ESIPA’s Possession, by Sidney Michaels, and Granville Burgess’s Dusky Sally, at Capital Rep.

“I’M NOT MUCH OF A HISTORY buff,” says Pirie MacDonald, “and I usually think of historical plays as being dull stuff. Then, when I was approached about playing Thomas Jefferson, I heard that they were looking for a younger man.” He’s in his 50s. looks scarcely 40, and is pleased to have that observed. “But when I got the part, I went to the little library in the town in Connecticut where I live, started reading about Jefferson and got fascinated with the man.”

Dusky Sally brings to the Capital Rep stage Jefferson’s controversial romance with Sally Hemings, a slave born to a black mother and white father. Details of the romance escape many of the history books, and those who acknowledge the union disagree hotly on the specifics.

Pirie MacDonald
“What Granville has done is to write a play that’s very much in touch with today’s attitudes toward interracial relationships,” says MacDonald. “I noticed that, within my own lifetime, thing have changed so much that the attitudes of Jefferson’s day are strikingly like the attitudes I grew up with in the ‘40s.”

MacDonald has been appearing in productions of Shakespeare plays this year, in Othello at Yale Rep and Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Theater. He made his Broadway debut in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and was seen in Death of a Salesman with George C. Scott. Film credits include Network and television includes The Adams Chronicles.

But he hardly comes across with an actor’s flamboyance. Indeed, the soft-spoken MacDonald may have his roughest career-related challenge in convincing the residents of his town that he’s a worthy neighbor. “My wife, who is a sculptor, has made a few more inroads,” he says, “and that helps.”

He is as interested in the process of acting as in the parts themselves. “Actors are very indulgent. But they’re also like litmus paper. They soak up everything that’s around them. And then you take a play like Dusky Sally, with a cast of five and a director and an assistant director, all bringing these individual personalities together; and then there’s another circle around that of production people and so on, maybe 25 in all—well, you end up with a marvelous little world all its own, of all these people working to bring together a play.”

In this age of public figure-bashing, is the play jumping on the bandwagon with a shot at Jefferson? “I don’t think so. First of all, this really happened. Second, it doesn’t really take on the man that way, and when it starts to in the rewrites, I resist it.

“But, really, who knows what was said, or what happened? We know that Sally Hemings did exist, that they did have this relationship, that they did have children: what you get here is a psychological picture of a man who was born a master into a slave society.”

Erica Gimpel, best known for her work in the TV series Fame, will portray Sally Hemings; other cast members are Peter Callender, Katherine Leask and Richard Maynard. Jack Chandler is director and set designer.

Metroland Magazine, Oct. 16, 1986

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