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.
In the middle of an often bizarre presidential campaign, author J.D. Sutton has decided to take audiences back in time, through his play “Thomas Jefferson ~ My Master, My Slave, My Friend.” Orlando Fringe will host the world premiere of the play, directed by Laurel Clark, executive director of Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theatre, with actors Jim Braswell as “Jupiter Evans,” and Sutton as Thomas Jefferson.
The show will be performed Saturday May 21 at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 24 at 7:15 p.m., Saturday May 28 at 1 p.m., and Sunday May 29 at 3 p.m.
J.D. Sutton talked to Freeline Media about the origins of this play.
FM: Is “Thomas Jefferson ~ My Master, My Slave, My Friend” a historical production, or also in some ways topical as well to issues the country is facing today?
J.D.: The play has its foundations in history. We know that Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 at his father’s plantation, and that a boy, named Jupiter, was born about the same time to one of his father’s slaves. We know that Jupiter served as Mr. Jefferson’s valet when he went to William & Mary, and stayed with him in Williamsburg while he studied law, and joined him the “circuit” of the county courts. We know that Jupiter ran errands for him, and paid bills for him, and even loaned him money from time to time. We know that Jupiter found his wife while Mr. Jefferson was courting his. We know that Jupiter was put in charge of the stables at Monticello. We also know when he died, and the circumstances surrounding his death. We know that they were together as the colonies lurched towards revolution and independence.
That much is history, and is known. Like any other piece of good historic fiction, this play is fleshed-out on that skeleton of fact.
It’s probable that as boys they played together, and like most boys got in a certain amount of trouble together. Mr. Jefferson almost certainly chose Jupiter to be his personal servant so that they could be together during all his years in Williamsburg. And you have to believe that when everyone was talking about “freedom,” and not being “slaves” to the king, they would have had to talk about slavery, and prejudice, and injustice.
So while the play is based in history, it’s really about the long-term relationship and friendship between two remarkable men as they struggle to define that friendship in a world where one of them is free and the other is a slave.
We live in a nation where the colors of our skins still make a difference. Where too many people of color are killed and imprisoned because of the same “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained” that Mr. Jefferson wrote about in 1782.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
The play also has relevance in this political year, since Mr. Jefferson’s plan for ending slavery was to free the slaves and then deport them. Sound familiar?
Yet the play ends on a hopeful note, with Mr. Jefferson expressing his belief that slavery must end, and encouraging his audience — a delegation of abolitionists — to make it happen.
FM: What’s the origin of this production?
J.D.: When I was growing up I had a close friend who happened to be black. And even though years and miles have separated us, whenever we get together the years evaporate and the friendship — the mutual “you matter in my life” — is unchanged, and still there.
So when I was researching Mr. Jefferson and first found out about Jupiter, I felt a connection to their story, and wanted to tell it.
FM: What are the challenges and rewards of writing a historical piece?
J.D.: Finding the flesh to put of that bare-boned historic skeleton. Of course there’s a lot of “me” in this: things I feel, things I believe, things I wish were different. Having that, and yet keeping it in balance with the history we know is a challenge.
Of course, the story needs a reason for being: Why are these people here? Why are they listening to you? In this case, the premise is that a delegation of abolitionists has come to Monticello to learn more about slavery and the relationship between slave and master.
The experience of seeing the characters come to life — sometimes in ways you didn’t even imagine! — is thrilling.
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.: In the script Mr. Jefferson describes Jupiter as “an uncommon man,” and the play certainly shows his integrity and strength of character. But it also shows him as a fleshed-out human being who loves his wife, takes pride in his job, and is devoted to his friend … even when his friend doesn’t appreciate that.
The play also shows a friendship that exists despite everything that might otherwise prevent it.
FM: How successfully have your actors captured their historic roles?
J.D.: I think we’re doing really well. I think the audience will walk away feeling that they rally have met these two. Kudos to Laurel Clark for her brilliant, insightful direction.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..