Playwright Debora Threedy
I wrote THE THIRD CROSSING to answer the question: How could two people live together for thirty-eight years, have children together, run a household together, when the woman is a slave of the man? More particularly, what was that life like for her? Was it a life of unmitigated horror – a lifetime of rape? Was it secret love hidden from a disapproving world? Or was it something much more complex? A lifetime of compromise, of making the best of things, of moments of pleasure and intimacy bracketed by moments of pain and degradation?
I’m not the first to be fascinated by this story; I stand on some pretty impressive shoulders, particularly Barbara Chase-Riboud’s historical novel, Sally Hemings, Fawn Brodie’s history, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life, and Annette Gordon- Reed’s analytic history, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, all of which I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about this story.
It became clear to me very early on that there had to be an ironic tone to my telling of this story, because the layers of irony are so thick. First of all, the man in the story is Tom Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of “all men are created equal.” Tom Jefferson, who himself owned some six hundred slaves and who only freed seven of them in his life or by his will (all of whom, by the way, were related to Sally . . . but not including Sally). Another layer of irony: we know so much about Tom Jefferson because he left such a thick documentary record, both by and about him: official writings, books, letters, journals, newspaper articles, etc. etc. In comparison, we know so little about Sally. As far as we know, she herself never wrote a thing in her life and the only things Tom Jefferson ever wrote about her were some thirty notations in his Farm Book, his journal of the business of the running of his plantation. Another irony: Tom and Sally probably first became an “item” when they were both living in France, Tom as Ambassador and Sally as a maid for his daughters. According to the law of France (which took to heart the message about liberty that it learned from America), Sally was a free woman while she was on French soil. Another irony: the scene about Jefferson’s “mathematical formula” is taken almost verbatim from a letter Jefferson wrote in answer to the question of what the legal definition of “negro” was – and by that letter, Tom Jefferson’s children by Sally were legally “white” – but not free. So, according to Jefferson, there could be such a thing as a “white slave” – a category that included his own children, including his only surviving sons! Another irony: Sally was the half sister of Tom Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Another: in the 1830 census, just four years after Tom Jefferson’s death, Sally Hemings, no longer living at Monticello, is listed as “white.” I could go on and on. So from the beginning I wanted this irony to be reflected in the play.
THE THIRD CROSSING artwork by Greg & Hollie Ragland
I began writing THE THIRD CROSSING in the mid-90s; my earliest remaining draft is dated 1995. Originally, the story focused exclusively on Tom and Sally. It was a long one-act. I circulated that draft among my friends and writing group, got good feedback, including the recommendation that I somehow “expand” the story as it seemed thin. Lots of advice on how to do that: develop the Martha/Sally relationship, move the beginning of the story back earlier to France, move it back even earlier to include Jefferson’s first wife and his deathbed promise to her to never marry again (true). And I even wrote some of those scenes – and then promptly threw them all out. Because the play was turning into this historical domestic drama. And that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I wanted to keep this ironic distance between the audience and the characters, not get swept up in a soap opera. (And of course, Hollywood was already doing that: it was during this period that Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte and Thandie Newton, came out: when I read about the opening in the paper, I was thoroughly disgusted, because now everyone would think I was inspired by the movie – which by the way I have studiously avoided seeing, to this day.) But at the time I couldn’t figure out how to capture that ironic distance. So I stuck the script in a drawer and there it sat for years, while I went on to other projects – including the story of Everett Ruess that eventually became THE END OF THE HORIZON (which received its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company in 2008).
I don’t remember when I finally took the script out of that drawer (actually, a box on the floor of my office) and started to work on it again, but it was sometime in the mid-00s. When I picked it up again, I very quickly realized what the problem was. I had said everything I wanted to say about Tom and Sally – but I wanted to show how their story reverberated over the centuries between them and us. I didn’t want people to be able to say, “Well, that was a long time ago.” I wanted to bring their story into the present.
I realized I wanted to do two things in the play: imaginatively re-create this very strange (to me) lifestyle of family intimacy where half the family is free and half is enslaved AND imbed it within the larger story of inter-racial relationships in America and the law’s role in policing those relationships – a topic I had studied in my academic life. And I realized I could do both, by alternating scenes between Tom and Sally and their family, with scenes that moved forward in time. So Professor Sloan comes into existence, as a feminist scholar commenting on the historic story – a character based on a real-life feminist scholar, Suzette Spencer (whom I’ve contacted by the way and who says she is flattered to be the inspiration for Professor Sloan). And of course I have to include the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, because their story is the bookend to Tom and Sally’s story: They are convicted of violating Virginia’s (Jefferson’s home state, remember) Racial Integrity Act, which made inter-racial marriage a crime, and they challenged their convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 1967 decision struck down all such acts as unconstitutional. The case is called Loving v. Virginia. How’s that for irony?
Listen dramaturg Greg Hatch’s audio interview with playwright Debora Threedy here.
Debora Threedy’s THE THIRD CROSSING (winner of the 2010 Fratti-Newman Political Play Contest and funded by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) receives its world premiere March 8-18, 2012 at Plan-B Theatre Company. Click here for more information and tickets. Plan-B has previously premiered Ms. Threedy’s THE END OF THE HORIZON (2008) and WALLACE (2010).