Marin Theatre Company (MTC) has found themselves at the center of a racially charged controversy with their latest production “Thomas and Sally.” The play, written by Thomas Bradshaw, is a fictional retelling of former president and founding father Thomas Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his teenage slave, Sally Hemings.
The controversy first took shape with the release of a promotional poster for the play, whose depiction of Hemings, critics alleged, played into the “Jezebel stereotype” of hypersexualized black women. While MTC eventually pulled the poster, the play itself remained contentious due to its morally ambiguous depiction of Jefferson, and scenes that depict Hemings as a willing partner in a sexual relationship. The Coalition of Bay Area Black Women Theater Artists argued that the play’s depiction of Hemings as anything other than a victim of sexual assault was an egregious decision. The Coalition has regularly protested performances and handed out pamphlets that detail their grievances.
MTC has attempted to address the criticism, publishing a statement last week that apologized for “alienating artists of color,” but they declined to pull the play from production or address any specific criticisms of the play’s content.
As a result of the controversy, MTC’s Facebook page is now dominated by one-star reviews and comments lambasting them for their production, even on posts unrelated to the play itself, with one commenter writing, “You are profiting off shock ‘theatre’ that reinforces the violent rape culture we are steeped in.”
While criticized by many, the play did receive praise from others. One Tam senior, who saw the play and requested anonymity, found it nuanced and thoughtful. “Women, particularly black women, had no voice or social status at the time,” she said. “The only way to move forward is to have the difficult and complex conversations depicted in the play.”