Felicia Curry plays Susannah, an enslaved woman who is tempted to fight for the British when they promise her freedom. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Felicia Curry plays Susannah, an enslaved woman who is tempted to fight for the British when they promise her freedom. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Women take center stage, as the director, playwright and leading actors in a new play, “Jefferson’s Garden,” which opens this week at Ford’s Theatre and serves as part of Washington’s Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The showcase of original works by female writers continues on more than 25 local professional stages through February.

With the American Revolution as the backdrop, the play, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Nataki Garrett, provides a view of historical fiction which examines the contradictions between our Founding Fathers’ ideals and the realities of freedom.

Christian, a Quaker pacifist, defies his family to fight in the Revolution while Susannah, an enslaved woman, feels compelled to fight for the British after being promised her freedom should the Brits win the fight. The paths of the two protagonists cross with many figures whose names have become foundational to early American history: Sally and James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason. Along the way, we witness the unfolding of the many compromises America made after initially professing the promise of equality for all.

“The American revolutionaries fought for freedom and spoke of hope but there was a deep contradiction at the heart of their rhetoric,” Wertenbaker said. “It seemed to me that this particular moment in American history is when the fault lines were laid, when the definition of freedom was corrupted. These are fault lines we suffer from today.”

Garrett, a D.C. native who grew up in the Bay Area, says that while Jefferson appeared to be onto something, it was “not enough to help my people.”

“I hope our audiences will ask themselves, who am I in this story, where do I fit in its history and how do I continue to support or dismantle the consequences of history today in the 21st century?” she said.

“During my work on this play, I discovered a kind of reverence for idealism,” she said. “Before, I thought more in terms of absolutes. Jefferson, because he was a slave master, had to also be a hypocrite. But then I wondered how was he able to inscribe such amazing language?”

“The paradox is that it existed within the same body. God clearly used him to write the Declaration of Independence. But he was still a human being and therefore flawed. That doesn’t remove the fact that the ideas which he penned so elegantly are still what we wished for and for which we still wish in these turbulent, troubling times.”

The production features Christopher Dinolfo as Christian and Felicia Curry as Susannah, with Christopher Bloch, Michael Kevin Darnall, Kimberly Gilbert, Michael Halling, Thomas Keegan, Kathryn Tkel and Maggie Wilder.

The director of “Jefferson’s Garden,” Garrett, previously displayed her talents for D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the recent production, “An Octoroon.” She currently serves as associate artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company.

“I am excited that Timberlake [one of the United Kingdom’s leading playwrights who makes her Ford’s Theatre directorial debut] has chosen to address the question of freedom through the experience of both the Quaker immigrants like Christian’s family – who come to this new land in search of hope and possibility, fleeing persecution and the enslaved characters in the play – whose freedom is relegated to the perception of their value in this newly-formed republic,” Garrett added.

“Jefferson’s Garden” is recommended for ages 15 and older. The performance is 2 hours and 30 minutes including an intermission. For more information on Ford’s Theatre and the Ford’s Theatre Society, visit www.fords.org.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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