Sunday, February 26, 2012

There are different points of view as to whether Thomas Jefferson actually had a love affair with his slave Sally Hemmings.  Many books have been written on the subject debating the pros and cons of the matter.  Descendants of Hemmings have claimed that two of Sally Hemming’s children, Eston and Madison, orally stated that Thomas Jefferson was their father.  Thus, their paternity by Thomas Jefferson has been widely supported and believed by Hemmings side of the family.  DNA testing via the male-line, indicates a genetic link between the Jefferson line and Hemming genetic line, indicating that an individual with the Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemmings.  Although there were 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried the chromosome at the time, it’s assumed the most logic conclusion is that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemming for sure and therefore it’s supposed he fathered his other children by Sally Hemmings.

As part of Black History month, the Castillo Theatre, located at 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, has brought to the stage their musical portrayal of “Sally and Tom: The American Way” via Fred Newman’s book version and lyrics.  Presented in a rather unique theatrical setting the production is kept moving literally.  Starring Ava Jenkins as Sally Hemming; Adam Kemmerer as Thomas Jefferson, Sean Patrick Gibbons as antagonist James T, Callender, and Brian D. Hicks as Madison Hemmings.  Both David Nackman and Miss Jacqueline Salit portray James Madison.  The production runs until March 25th

While the play portrays Jefferson as a rather complicated man, it covers his hypocritical and rather cowardly side.  Reported as being opposed to slavery and even having stated he found the institution of slavery an abominable crime, Jefferson himself held slaves on his Monticello plantation in Virginia. Although it was not uncommon for the rich aristocracy to rape and force female slaves into sexual relationships as Jefferson did to Sally in Paris when she was 17 years old, it was one of those well kept private secrets never mentioned publicly.  In fact, it was considered bad form to talk about what even the slave master’s white wives, who while averting their eyes to the truth, could evidence given the numerous slave children who resembled their husbands. That is why when Jefferson’s political opponent and journalist James T. Callender wrote an article claiming Sally was Jefferson’s concubine during Jefferson’s first term as President, Jefferson gave no response, despite widely spread publicity on the affair.   

While Jefferson never freed Sally, (his daughter did) Sally repeatedly begged him to free his children.  He finally freed Madison on his 21st birthday and its rumored he eventually freed all his children. It’s reported that Jefferson drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans and proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories, with the hopes of eventual emancipation.  Yet, after having proposed these ordinances, Jefferson primarily remained silent; neither making further anti-slavery statements nor taking any significant public action to change the course of slavery.  Jefferson’s contradictory nature remains a puzzle to historians.  

Initially I found the first half of the production slow moving, however it picked up considerably during the course of the show, directly challenging the hypocrisy of America itself in terms of its pretense of “equal justice and liberty for all,” when it clearly practices inequity.  Songs in the musical such as “Enslaved by the Color of Our Skin,” “Rich and Poor Hypocrisy,” “The Coward’s Song,” and “The American Way,” highlight America’s hypocrisy and penchant for unequal treatment of its non-white citizens.  The song “The Beginning of America’s Night,” focuses on White America’s fear of those of darker hue.  Their revulsion of black people and other people of color is demonstrated by their deeds, declarations and an institutionalized hatred that continues to exist to this day, despite denial to the contrary.  Given Jefferson’s anti-slavery position he would be delighted to see a black man as President and perhaps disappointed to see although President Obama expressed “change,” little has changed, given the unbridled hatred, disrespect, hostility, and disgusting behavior demonstrated by many members of Jefferson’s own race toward the presidency of Barack Obama. Jefferson would be horrified by the condition of America; its joblessness, fear mongering, wars, dismantling of citizens rights, the economic condition brought about by the loss of manufacturing, greed and corruption and an educational system that ranks lower than some third world countries. He would be shocked by the complacency of the American people whose complete ambivalence and lack of self-governance has turned America into an oligarchy instead of a democracy.  Jefferson would find it unimaginable that greedy corporations have become multi-nationalist betraying America and nationalism for the sake of profit. 

“Sally and Tom: The American Way,” displays the inequity of early America, while reminding us that inequity still prevails.  Although a hidden love affair between two people, Sally and Tom demonstrates that nothing hidden remains so forever.  Yet, it reminds us it’s not too late for America to learn the lessons of its past.  Go see “Sally and Tom” and let’s begin the collective work that brings true equity and a better America in future.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kim Brockington as Zora Neale Hurston: Our Stories in History

By Deardra Shuler

The National Black Touring Circuit featured Kim Brockington as Zora Neale Hurston, in a one woman play written by Laurence Holder, and directed by Wynn Handman, as part of the Black History Month Play Festival which runs through February 26th, wherein shows such as “The Good Fight: A Phillip Randolph” starring Ralph McCain, was held February 3-5; Zora Neale Hurston ran February 10th through 12th; “Adam” is running at the Dwyer Cultural Center, at 258 St. Nicholas Avenue in Manhattan, February 17-19, starring Timothy Simonson, and I, Barbara Jordan” starring Toni Seawright, finishes out the series at the National Black Theatre, located at 2031 Fifth Avenue, on February 24-26th. Call the respective venues for tickets.

“I wouldn’t be doing Zora if it weren’t for Woodie King, Jr., and Elizabeth Van Dkye. Initially Elizabeth was portraying Zora with Joseph Edwards. The show was top shelf. I caught her show and was very impressed. A year later, Woodie called me to say Elizabeth could not do the show in Bethlehem, PA and asked whether I could I go on in her place. I did not have to do anything but say ‘yes.’ And I did. Elizabeth was generous and gave me the blocking. Woodie gave me the script and I had 6 weeks to get ready for it. I had some pretty big shoes to fill. I started playing the role whenever Elizabeth could not do a performance,” said Kim Brockington.

“I have always been interested in the life of Zora Neale Hurston. Born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, Zora was the fifth of eight children. Zora was a fun loving, outrageous, bodacious individual who was all about getting her art out to the world. She became the literary queen of the Harlem Renaissance. “Her Eyes Were Watching God was one of her most famous books,” stated Kim who loves portraying the role.

Ms. Brockington portrayed Zora in a PBS documentary. “I talk about Zora’s childhood in the PBS version,” remarked the talented performer. “Zora’s mother died when Zora was young and it changed Zora’s whole world. Her father married very soon afterward. Zora’s father was a ladies man and always a bit scandalous. His new wife did not like Zora, so Zora was sent her off to school. Eventually, her father stopped paying for school and she was kicked out. She got a job in a traveling theatrical show as a maid. Zora always loved storytelling, thus it’s no surprise she became a writer. She returned to school attending Morgan where she finished high school. By the time she got to Howard University, she was writing. She was 28. She went on to Barnard where she majored in anthropology."

Ahead of her time, Zora was a poet, writer and anthropologist, who won several awards and contests. Eventually she won a Guggenheim Fellowship allowing her to travel to Jamaica and Haiti, where she studied African voodoo rituals. Hurston continued her research in America’s southland where she collected and wrote about African American folklore.

During the Harlem Renaissance era, a lot of the artists had patrons who sponsored their work. Charlotte Mason was Zora’s patron. Ms. Mason was an influential woman who gave Zora money for clothes, books and lodging. Langston Hughes also had a patron but criticized Zora for allowing her patronage to go on too long. Charlotte Mason, who insisted Zora called her “Godmother,” was very controlling and wanted to control Zora’s art, forcing Zora to acquiesce to Charlotte demands. Zora felt smothered, frustrated and angry under Godmother’s control. Finally, she got away from Godmother after publishing Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1934. "Moses, Man of the Mountain" was published in 1939. Ms. Hurston’s periodicals were published in The Saturday Evening Post, and American Mercury. She contributed to "Woman in the Suwannee County Jail," a book written by journalist William Bradford Hule. As a folklorist, Hurston oftentimes wrote in the dialect of her subject matter, utilizing speech patterns of the period she documented. “Mules and Men,” was another of her works.

Zora studied voodoo in New Orleans and became a voodoo priestess. She established a school of dramatic arts at Bethune College. Then while Zora was in Honduras she was falsely accused of child molestation in the United States. This took a toll on Zora. Even though she was able to prove her innocence the damage had been done. Accusations, primarily detailed in the black press, ruined her life. It became difficult for Zora to find work or get her work published. She took work where she could find it and freelanced for magazines. Broke, tired and disappointed, Zora went home to Alabama where she found work as a maid. She died, buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker resurrected Hurston’s work posthumously.

Kim Brockington was born in Baltimore, Maryland. An only child, Kim started performing at 5 years old. Acting and singing has always been in her blood. She went to Morgan State for a year and transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She has been acting ever since.

She will be performing her one-woman show on Zora at Georgia State University in Atlanta on March 12th for Women’s Month; in May, she is slated to perform Zora in Baltimore and perhaps another performance in New Jersey in June. Her other credits include an Audelco Award for Outstanding Performance for Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe in 2009. She performed Darlene in “In Walks Ed.” She was nominated for another Audelco Award for “Coming Apart Together.” In TV and Film, Kim appeared in the Spike Lee pilot “Da Brick.” She has appeared in soaps “The Guiding Light,” “One Life to Live,” and “All My Children.” Ms. Brockington guest starred in West Wing, Third Watch, Law and Order Criminal Intent and in films “Rock the Paint,” "School of Rock,” “Love Songs,” and “Dirty Laundry.”

Interested parties can find out more about Kim Brockington via