ORLANDO – The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, and this year the nearly three-week long festival will feature the largest line-up of shows in its history.
Author J. D. Sutton is taking a unique approach to Fringe, by bringing a familiar name to the audience: Thomas Jefferson. Sutton has written, and is performing in, two plays based on different aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life: “My Services to Our Country” and “My Master, My Slave, My Friend.”
Freeline Media talked to Sutton about his historical efforts.
FM: Is “Thomas Jefferson ~ My Services to Our Country” a historical production, or also in some ways topical as well to issues the country is facing today?
J.D.: Yes, he play is “historical” in the sense that it’s about Thomas Jefferson, and is drawn, often verbatim, from his writings. The play focuses on the three things he hoped most to be remembered for: writing the Declaration, writing the Virginia law that established religious freedom, and founding UVA.
Right now we’re still in a pretty-contentious primary season, with the real likelihood of contentious party conventions, and the absolute certainty of a contentious election season … and perhaps beyond.
Is the play relevant? Just look at some of the debates going on: What kind of government should we have? (Trumpian? Clintonian? Sandersonian? None of the above?) Should we exclude people because of their religion? What do we mean by “the separation of church and state”? How much influence should somebody’s different religious belief have on our daily life? What is the value of education? Should education be free to everyone? Should everybody go to college? What is America’s place in the world? And what do we want that world to look like?
One thing that’s always popular — and especially popular this year — is Mr. Jefferson’s “Principles of Government” from his first inaugural address. I’ve even had people stand up and applaud … and the play’s not even half-way done!
FM: What’s the origin of this production?
J.D.: It was my wife’s idea. We had visited Monticello, and at the time I’d been working on a different solo play. (I truly believe that every actor needs at least one solo play in his back-pocket. Not only for those between-jobs times, but for the intellectual challenge of creating something that’s uniquely yours.) As we were driving away, she said, “You know, you could play Thomas Jefferson.” And I thought “OK. I’m a little shorter, and a little heavier but … yeah. Red hair. Anglo-Saxon ancestry … Sure!”
At the time I had one slim, abridged biography on him, and I read that, and then started other reading, and trips to Williamsburg and Monticello for research, and five years later I had a first script. That got picked-up by Orlando Shakespeare for its original PlayLab, and in all the intervening years it’s changed very little. And people respond to it.
FM: What are the challenges and rewards of (writing and acting in) a historical piece?
J.D.: A lot of people see Mr. Jefferson on a pedestal. His idealism — his efforts to create a brand-new nation founded on “reason, and the good of those for whose government it was framed” – is inspirational. And people are drawn to that. This is the guy who wrote the “American Creed” that “all men are created equal,” and every civil rights/equal rights movement since our nation’s founding has come out of that. We’re still fighting those battles today.
But with all this he has to become “real” to the audience.
Bringing Thomas Jefferson to life, and sharing his idealism and enthusiasm, is exciting.
FM: Fringe is known for hosting plenty of comedies, musicals and dance numbers. Tell us why audiences should be sure to catch this production as well?
J.D.: Sometimes you need to be able to walk away from a show realizing that you got more for your money than an amusing hour-or-so. Sometimes you need something that makes you say, “Oh, yeah!” That’s what this play does.
And by the way, there’s a lot of humor tucked-away in this, It’s not a lecture. It’s a one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball, face-to-face encounter with a really interesting guy. When it’s done, you might even want to buy him a beer. Hint, Hint!)
Carl Gauze (ink19) summed this up nicely:“ …a low-keyed yet hugely entertaining evening …While the topics covered sound heavy and polemic, the sense of the evening is time well spent with a funny and lovable uncle.”
FM: How successfully have your actors captured their historic roles?
J.D. OK, here I’m just going to hit you with some of the comments — from audiences and critics — that I’ve received over the years.
First, the audience: “Excellent presentation – in fact, inspiring.”; “Wonderful program, exceeded my expectations.”; “Mr. Sutton … made Mr. Jefferson come to life. Amazingly good!”; “I loved it!”, “An excellent performance and history lesson – well done.”; “A truly memorable performance!”; “Surprisingly humorous and ‘human.’ Made Mr. Jefferson come alive.”; “I felt like I had spent an hour with the real Thomas Jefferson.”; “No actor here – we were in the presence of a fine and noble statesman.”; “Fascinating program! Very impressive performance.”
And some critics and reviewers: “…a colorful, gripping, and ultimately fascinating portrait of our third president …a surprisingly clever and uniquely entertaining first-person account of our nation’s early history and the people who shaped it.” (City Link, Ft. Lauderdale, FL); “You won’t see a better rendition on stage of the man from Monticello than this.”(Orlando Sentinel); “ … a remarkable performance.” Cape May Gazette, Cape May, NJ); “Sutton recreates a fascinating Thomas Jefferson, warts and all. His portrayal of our third president literally brings the man to life. Sutton’s performance …is so compelling that it gives one an irresistible urge to see him do it again.” (Cape May Star and Wave, Cape May, NJ), “J.D. Sutton is Thomas Jefferson” (Bud Hedinger, 540.WFLA, Orlando, FL)
“My Services to Our Country” will be performed twice, on Thursday, May 19 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 22 at 11:30 a.m
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..