The Reclamation of Madison Hemings At The Indiana Repertory Theatre is good theater that The Hoosier State will enjoy.

Thomas Jefferson was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the third president of the United States and an enslaver who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men are created equal, own 600 enslaved people. 

One of the famous stories about Jefferson is regarding a controversial relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who was also his sister-in-law. Hemings’ mother was bi-racial, and Sally’s father was John Wayles, the father of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. Sally was a half-sister of Martha and considered three-quarters white.

Historical debate over whether there was a sexual relationship between them continues; however, most 21st century historians agree that Jefferson is the father of one or more of Sally’s children. One of those children is the central theme of playwright Charles Smith’s play, The Reclamation of Madison Hemings.

We had the pleasure of traveling to Indianapolis to review this play at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The world premiere of The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is a story about one of Sally’s Hemings children named Madison, who refused to accept his father’s last name, Thomas Jefferson, —choosing instead to be called Hemings.

Although slavery had been abolished in America, many enslaved people never felt the true meaning of freedom. Madison journeys back to the neglected Monticello after the end of the Civil War in 1866. He struggles with anger and resentment of being considered a Jefferson. I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings, he recalls. His friend and formerly enslaved footman, Israel Jefferson, also known as Israel Gillette (enslaved parents Jane and Edward Gillett), returned to Monticello (“Little Mountain”) in search of his brother, Moses. Israel purchased his freedom from Thomas Walker Gilmer and took Jefferson’s surname at the clerk’s suggestion when he registered his freedom.

Seeing the Monticello, Madison’s bitterness grows as he recounts his youth’s times, envisioning how he, along with his brothers, Beverly, Eston, and sister Harriet, was never allowed to live in the mansion. Yet, at the same time, his old friend Isreal, whose fond memories reflect more towards honor and family, neutralizes his horrific time in bondage. As the play starts, Isreal searches to see if his brother Moses was buried on the grounds among the hundreds of enslaved people who lived and died at Monticello, but when the night drew, they sought shelter. 

Madison decided he wanted to sleep in the vacated Monticello mansion, but Israel was against it. Israel felt honored to have the last name of Jefferson, didn’t want to dishonor the estate by entering without permission, concerned about facing severe drawbacks. Madison, still harboring, resented feeling as an unwanted bastard child of Jefferson, was determined to get revenge, goes into the house, stealing everything he could as an inheritance. With both of them fighting feelings from the past, their lives became the background on a history few knew existed. And those in power, who wrote the stories of our history, chose to ignore them. 

Part of IRT’s INclusion Series: Celebrating Diverse Storytelling, The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is the story of two formerly enslaved Black Americans and explores the brutal history of slavery in the United States. This two-person play features David Alan Anderson and Brian Anthony Wilson. Anderson, who hails from Indianapolis, where his association with The Indiana Repertory Theatre began in 1990, has been in Chicago’s Writers Theatre (Stick Fly) and The First Deep (Victory Gardens Theatre). He was superb as the upper-class, aristocratic Israel Jefferson, a black man who never felt like his owners respected his pedigree or his name as a Jefferson. Instead, he was a black man who understood the facade given to him as a man in charge of other blacks, but never his freedom. Another fantastic performance was given by Brian Anthony Wilson, who played Madison Hemings, the son of Sally Hemings, who was enraged with feelings of hate towards Jefferson after hearing his mother being attacked by him when she was a teenager. Jefferson was in his 40’s. Anderson and Wilson’s chemistry on stage were incredible, making this premier a must-see at The Indiana Repertory Theatre. 

In Chicago, Ron O.J. Parson is synonymous with directing outstanding plays. Parson is a master in his field and brings out the realism within his characters, which keeps the audience enthralled by each performance, making for theater at its finest. 

Playwright Charles Smith, a native from the Southside of Chicago, started at Victory Gardens Theater in 1985, working as an intern. Many of Smith’s plays discuss various historical contexts to explore contemporary issues of race, identity, and politics in America. The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is another excellent example of his superb storytelling abilities. 

The Reclamation of Madison is a compelling historical story that America needs to hear. Our history is filled with adverse incidents where enslaved children were fathered by white enslavers that weren’t recognized as legitimate offspring worthy of family honors and privileges. Playwright Charles Smith does a masterful job sharing this unknown American story of a black child who never felt wanted by his famous white father—a hidden story from our society, which needs to convey to cure the ills of humanity.

In 1873, Madison Hemings, at the age of 68dictated his memoirs about his mother Sally Hemings to an Ohio newspaper called the Pike County Republican, who published a series called “Life Among the Lowly. The Pike County Republican also included the memoirs of Isreal Jefferson published in the same year as a memoir by Madison Hemings, affirming Madison’s account of Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of Sally Hemings.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre is an amazing edifice, and this play is just the fabulous premier to its 2021-2022 season. Costume Designer Dana Rebecca Woods did an excellent job crafting the era piece attire for ‘The Reclamation of Madison Hemings,’ which helped bring the visual setting together of 1866.

Thanks for the warm welcome we received from Kerry Barmann and Danielle Dove of IRT. 

Let’s Play Recommends The Reclamation of Madison Hemings at The Indiana Repertory Theatre. 

Indiana Repertory Theatre

The Reclamation of Madison Hemings 

Written by Charles Smith

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Runs Mar 23 – Apr 16, 2022

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