Charles Smith’s “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings,” having its world premiere through April 16 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set on the grounds of Monticello in 1866. But we don’t go in the building. Instead, we remain outside, where Hemings — the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings — and Israel Jefferson (no relation) — a former enslaved footman there — have returned, in part, to come to terms with their pasts and their identities.  

Some thoughts:

– David Alan Anderson is the very definition of “destination actor.” His name on the cast list  is an automatic sign that an evening in the theater will be worthwhile. Here, he plays opposite Brian Anthony Wilson (Gloucester in the St. Louis Shakespeare “King Lear” with Andre de Shields – a production I’m so glad was offered online). I would be happy to listen to these two talk — and listen to each other — for another few hours. 

– Smith’s play and the talent assembled here bring these two men to life while also making a clear statement about the way history has whitewashed the actual human beings who were enslaved under Jefferson and the hypocrisy of “all men are created equal” being written by a slave owner. At the same time, the ending feels like it was crafted before the rest was worked out. As such, its potential power was diminished for me because it doesn’t seem to grow organically out of the play. I was more aware of what it was trying to do rather than what it actually did and so was more intellectually rather than emotionally engaged with it. 

– With a hefty dose of backstory, the I’m leaving/I’m not leaving challenges that face any two-hander, and an abundance of symbolism — some overt and even acknowledged (including an actual stubborn mule) — it wasn’t clear what the stakes and obstacles were for each of these men. The details were there, but not the focus. And that would be a bigger problem if the moment-to-moment writing wasn’t so strong. Whether focused on how to cook a rabbit or sharing memories of relatives lost, dead, or sold, Smith’s play was strongest in its details more than its arc.  

– Scenic designer Shaun Motley’s set offered a mix of two- and three-dimensional scenery backed by projections by Mike Tutaj for an effect that bordered on high-end museum diorama. That’s not a bad thing. The notion of seeing history in a different light visually as well as narratively is something that might be explored even further in future productions, of which I hope there will be many.  And applause to Composer and Sound Designer Christopher Kriz for an effective rainstorm. I know the job entails more than this effect, but it stood out. 

– It’s about time we’re seeing a world premiere play at the IRT that isn’t written by James Still. Nothing against Still. It’s just that nearly all of the new-play eggs have been in his basket for a long time at Indiana’s largest regional theater. I get that new plays are risky financially, especially in a market such as ours that hasn’t developed a sizable adventurous audience. But without an ongoing public reading series of new work or a second stage where newer works are developed or launched, a theater can start to feel like a museum that only looks back rather than a vibrant art center that looks at today and tomorrow. Here’s hoping for more, whether on the mainstage or elsewhere in the building.

– And a repeat from previous posts: This town (and the country in general) needs more critics of color. I realize that there are lots of obstacles to that, including both theater and theater criticism’s history of exclusion. It also doesn’t help that there aren’t paying markets in this town so maybe it’s just us older white people who are dumb enough to write gratis. Whatever the case, it’s sad to go to any production, let alone one such as this, and know that the only people whose thoughts will be made public beyond social media comments are white. I don’t know the answer. But I’ll put this offer out again. If you are a writer of color interested in using my platform here to share your insight into what’s happening on Indianapolis-area stages, let’s talk.

Brian Anthony Wilson and David Alan Anderson in the IRT’s 2022 production of ‘The Reclamation of Madison Hemings.’ Photo by Zach Rosing.