It is a play about immigrants, dreams deferred, questioning power, race relations, sacrifice, conflicting principles — topics that many people deal with today. The backdrop for a new production at Ford’s Theatre happens to be the American Revolution. The themes have been with us since the founding fathers embarked on a life of freedom.
“Jefferson’s Garden,” authored by Timberlake Wertenbaker, features a nine-member cast portraying historical figures who struggle with their faith and the definition of liberty while wrestling with the idea of freedom in America. The actors take on dual roles, changing costumes and moving stage props in front of the audience. Perhaps this approach to scene changes is a subtle statement about playing different roles in life to survive. The actors also break the fourth wall and address the audience directly to the audience. They set up scene changes bringing in contemporary references with sarcasm.
The play begins with a Quaker family seeking peace and quiet in a new land. Quiet time in the lives of Quakers is an ongoing theme that provides comic relief. It also another key message about survival: “don’t make waves, keep your head down.” But there is always one who has a “revolutionary” mindset. That would be Christian, the grandson in the Quaker family. Christian questions everything and ends up leaving the family on a life journey to “fight for the cause” ending up in Virginia. He meets Susannah, a slave, who he naively thinks they can be together, not as master and slave. Throughout his travels, Christian also meets George Mason and Thomas Jefferson. Again, gullible Christian believes that Jefferson true advocates that all people are equal.
Through thought-provoking dialogue, “Jefferson’s Garden” gives the audience a lot of “ah-ha” moments. When slaves were considered three-fifths of a human and denied the right to vote, the parallels to gerrymandering and voter suppression are evident. When Christian and Susannah admit their love for each other, it is against the backdrop of Jefferson fathering several children with Sally Hemmings, one of his house slaves. When the actors announce to the audience they will not see the harsher realities of slavery like beatings and rapes, it is while the song “Wade in the Water” is playing. Then the cast educates the audience that the “slave song” is really about escaping and finding freedom.
Playwright Wertenbaker and director Nataki Garrett have collaborated on a production that does not hold back on delivering a message of the more things change, maybe not so much. The cast transitions through character changes with ease, not losing intensity. One of the closing lines in “Jefferson’s Garden” helps to explain how life trips you up when searching for honesty, equality and love.
“My life was a quest for freedom, but I seem to have lost it along the way,” Christian said.
“Jefferson’s Garden” runs through Feb. 8 at Ford’s Theatre. The production is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, featuring plays written by women at theaters in the D.C. region.