Her name was Sally
Last week on News and Notes we were talking about the deep problem that the entertainment industry has with sexual harassment and assault, and the long culture of silence that finally starting to crack open. In the introduction, I mentioned in passing another story that I would have rather been talking about, and a reader told me that I shouldn't have passed over it:
"Not sure why you needed to add that the Thomas and Sally production, which has brought up several issues around sexual assault/the sexualization of black bodies, is less "immediate" and less "deeply important" to a conversation about sexual assault. Would've been a great opportunity to tie-in an intersectional conversation, rather than seeming to make room then dismissing it."
You're right, Mo Holmes, I did miss an opportunity. Publishing deadlines being what they are, I can't address everything, so I didn't take the time to do much research into that story last week. I didn't mean to dismiss it or imply that it wasn't important. I just didn't have much background on the story to really get into it, and I hate launching into something uninformed.
But, you're right. Upon actually doing that research, I see that I missed something important that ties right back into the culture that produces sexually predatory men in positions of power. So, can you spot me a do-over, Mo?
To get everyone else up to speed, Marin Theatre Company in California recently premiered a new play about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jefferson was a founding father who wrote many passionate and beautiful words about freedom, slavery and tyranny. Hemings was one of the 600+ slaves that this freedom-loving man owned and never freed. Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Hemings when he was a middle-aged man and she was only 14. We know that he fathered at least one of Hemings' six children, despite 150 years of historians denying that truth. Was there a real romance there? Frankly, we have no idea; but it's really hard for me to imagine that was possible. If we've learned anything from the avalanche of claims against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., et al, (or, barring that, literally any point in history) it's that extreme disparities of power often place the less powerful in positions where they feel they have no choice but to bend to the sexual will of the more powerful. I don't think you can come up with a more extreme disparity of power than the one between a wealthy Virginia plantation owner and his 14-year-old slave.
But, here comes Thomas and Sally, with the provocative premise that there is more to this story than a rich white man taking sexual advantage of an enslaved black child. Who knows? Maybe there is. Maybe there's something worth exploring here. Perhaps we could see the hypocrisy of Jefferson laid bare. Perhaps we could see Hemings exercising what little agency she was allowed. Perhaps we could see them both as complicated human beings laboring under one of the most horrific institutions that humanity ever dreamt up (never forgetting, of course, that one of those complicated human beings actually had the power to change this institution, at least for the 600+ other complicated human beings he legally owned).
But, things went off the rails pretty quickly. The promotional image the Marin Theatre originally circulated (and which they have since actively tried to scrub from existence) managed to imply that Hemings was coy and seductive, while Jefferson was stately and dignified, as if this otherwise great man simply could not control himself in the presence of such a temptation, that it was kind of, you know, her fault. That's no small feat for a badly photoshopped image.
That's when the protests began. Initially, it could have been easily spun as a misunderstanding over the aforementioned badly photoshopped image, but as people actually saw the play and more information about the development of the show came out, a group of black, female theater professionals in the Bay Area got together to release an open letter detailing the specific problems with this production.
Of course, I have not seen this show. It's in California, and I am in Minnesota. Also, it is over three hours long, and it features a framing device wherein two modern day college students yap at each other in a dorm room. The play could be about literally any possible subject in human existence, and I would still find it objectionable for those two features alone. I have been reading reviews, though, and, despite Marin Theatre's protestations that this is totally not intended to be thought of as a love story, that's totally not the vibe that many critics are getting. Some of them find the show to be a pretty good takedown of Jefferson's hypocrisy, but many seem to agree with the assessment from the Marin Independent Journal: "it feels like [playwright Thomas Bradshaw] tries so hard to be fair to everyone that he doesn’t bring much of a perspective to the story at all."
And therein lies the problem. Being "provocative" without a real perspective isn't too far from just being an asshole (it's what I like to call South Park Syndrome). Considering that Sally Hemings doesn't even make an appearance in the show until the second act, it's pretty clear that it's not really her story that's being told. That's a big problem. And as some who have seen the show have pointed out, the entire audience experience from the moment they walk into the theater seems aimed at minimizing the coercive environment she was really in. They might as well have shown the Hallmark Channel miniseries of this same story, which is a thing that, unfortunately, exists.
I don't think that the staff at Marin Theatre is a bunch of bigots or slavery apologists; but I find it hard to believe that if they had a single black woman on their staff anywhere that this show would not have made it to the stage in its current form. I checked their staff page. They do not.
But what does this have to do with Harvey Weinstein?
Sure, it's not a direct connection. It would be really weird to find out that Harvey Weinstein embarked on literally decades of sexual assault against scores of women after learning about Thomas Jefferson's "love" for his slave girl. No, the connection is in the implication that this woman, who was in a situation in which she had no choice but to submit to her bondage and sexual domination, kinda liked it. That's a pretty icky message, isn't it? And if you look back at all the pop culture that you have absorbed in your lifetime with this framing in mind, you'll probably find a whole lot of subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages that women are there for men to dominate, subdue and/or win.
As that open letter I linked to above states: "Cultural productions in theater and mass media directly contribute to the sexual violence against women."
A culture is nothing more than the stories that a group of people tell themselves about themselves, and we need to think hard about what we're saying about ourselves. It doesn't have to be the gross bro-ness of Entourage. How many of you good-guy nerds out there have drooled over Carrie Fisher in her "Slave Leia" metal bikini? The reason that the entertainment industry has such huge challenges with sexual harassment is precisely because it is still largely run by men who have wholly absorbed and assimilated this cultural lesson. It's not really going to end until we have people in the room who can legitimately relate the views of those who are portrayed in those stories. In our case, the theater world needs gender parity in leadership.
This isn't just about occasionally casting a women in a traditionally male role. It's about actually opening up opportunities for women to participate in real and meaningful ways, to put them on a path to actually being in charge of major decisions (like, say, in running the risk of romanticizing the relationship between a slave and her owner). It's a systemic change, which means it has to start from the bottom up, and it will take longer than any of us would like, but it's necessary.
In the meantime, guys, you need to stop being horrible sacks of shit. That would help, too.
How much do you owe?
And now for something more fun: taxes. A lot of you working in theater earn most of your theater money as "independent contractors", which means that your taxes are just a joy to put together every April. There is a blistering array of things that may or may not be considered legitimate deductions, and most of us make mistakes that could come back to bite us later as we seek to deduct anything and everything we can. From a tax perspective, it really sucks to be a freelancer, and, according to Actors Equity, the tax change proposals currently in front of Congress could make that suck even more.
So, what can you do? Lobby your Congressional representatives to put a stop to this? Get out of the game entirely? Or maybe move to another country and seek some better employment? If you opt for number 3, you should know that there's a whole new industry in Japan where you could be hired to act as someone's friends and family. I guess that's an option.