ORLANDO — As he walks out onto the stage and addresses the audience, he begins to ponder the seemingly impossible task of bringing a profound but vitally needed change to the nation.
He wants to eradicate a system that he considers not just immoral but also antithetical to the entire concept of a nation founded on freedom — the issue, of course, being the evils of slavery. As he speaks, Thomas Jefferson sounds so rational, so intelligent, and so cultured, that you might just want to hit the world’s pause button and rewind.
In a presidential election year in which the candidates have, at various times, discussed the length of their body parts, whether a rival’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, which groups in society are “rapists,” who should be allowed to walk into women’s bathrooms and other tabloid-friendly topics, Thomas Jefferson, our third president from 1801 to 1809, seems like the picture-perfect leader. He is thoughtful, quiet and dignified, does not talk down to his audience, acknowledges when he doesn’t have any answers, and ruminates on the difficulty of extending America’s love of freedom to the blacks who had been brought here as slaves.
His views, he acknowledges, were partly shaped by his boyhood friend, Jupiter Evans, who is black. They shared mischievous times together, and became close friends. Jefferson even admits that if anything were to ever happen to Jupiter, it would be next to impossible to replace someone like him in his life.
If you’ve ever felt like our current presidential campaign was crude, obnoxious, deeply offensive and an embarrassment the world over, you might want to ask Jefferson to consider seeking a third term, and could easily imagine him representing the nation in a most impressive way during those Rose Garden press conferences.
Of course, it’s never that simple. And one of the most intriguing aspects of author J.D. Sutton’s play “Thomas Jefferson — My Master, My Slave, My Friend,” is how positively backwards so much of Thomas Jefferson’s views were — at least when measured by the standards of a nation that has twice elected its first African American president.
Sutton, who plays Jefferson, does a masterful job in his role, and so does Jim Braswell as Jupiter. They laugh about fun times growing up together. They clearly hide few if any secrets from one another. Jefferson even has scholarly political debates with his friend.
But there’s still never any question that this is still a master-slave relationship — and always will be.
Jupiter must seek Jefferson’s permission for all he does — to come into the room, to speak to the audience, even to sit down. He is the subservient one.
And for all of Jefferson’s quiet grace and good will, there’s no question he knows his role in this situation as well. When Jupiter complains about the white men in Jefferson’s inner circle who would beat him with a riding crop simply for looking at them the wrong way, Jefferson testily cuts him off and insists no white person he knows would ever do such a thing.
By the expression on Jupiter’s face, we all know better.
But even more devastating is Jefferson’s plan to “solve” the so-called Negro problem. It’s nothing at all like what Abraham Lincoln would eventually propose; Jefferson suggests allowing slaves that reach a certain age to be declared free — and then shipped back to Africa. The older generation of slaves would, he insists, be allowed to die off, and with them the whole ugly stain of slavery in the U.S.
If that sounds like an appalling “solution,” it’s Jupiter himself who is quick to point out the obvious: many blacks were born in this nation, even if they were born as captive slaves. This is their home. They know nothing of Africa.
But Jefferson, ever the intellectual, sees only the problems: how could this nation ever expect whites and blacks to co-exist as equals? And besides, he adds, the economy in the South is intricately linked to slavery. How in the world could that devastating assault on the economic foundation of the region ever be taken away?
So maybe Jefferson wouldn’t be such a dignified leader today after all.
The production, which is being performed at the Orlando Fringe Festival, has a lot going for it: Sutton’s smart script, the classy direction by Laurel Clark, and the terrific acting by both men. And while it takes us back to a very different era, this hardly feels like a dry history book lesson. There are some powerfully emotional moments throughout.
And in light of today’s presidential campaign, it’s a sobering reminder of just how far this nation has come …
…. well, in some respects, anyway.
“Thomas Jefferson — My Master, My Slave, My Friend” will be performed in the Yellow Venue at the Lowndes Shakepeare Center on the following dates:
* Saturday May 21 at 3:30 p.m.
* Tuesday May 24 at 7:15 p.m.
* Saturday May 28 at 1 p.m.
* Sunday May 29 at 3 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..