This is the story of a love that developed over a lifetime, through the filter of race. “From the Diary of Sally Hemings” gives us a fictional glimpse into the complex being of someone who refused to be identified as merely Thomas Jefferson”s mistress.
Each performance of “Hemings” features a cycle of 18 songs composed by the University”s Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and pianist William Bolcom and written by accomplished playwright and English professor Sandra Seaton. “Hemings” will be sung by mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, who chose Bolcom to compose the songs for this work because she “fell in love” with his music.
Bolcom was initially hesitant to work with the subject matter of Hemings simply because he had never seen a well-crafted depiction of her life. However, his interest in the romantic relationship between Hemings and Jefferson, rather than the historical aspects surrounding it, drove him to follow through with the project.
He knew of only one person who could write the show and actually make the production a success: His long time friend and playwright Sandra Seaton. Seaton first met Bolcom in 1988, after he won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Twelve New Etudes for Piano.” “Sandra truly believed in Sally, and her experiences of segregation are what made her passionate about this piece,” Bolcom said.
Seaton, who has earned a reputation for representing non-stereotypical views of the African American middle class in her plays, said that her main goal was to “breathe life” into Hemings. She wants people to feel that Hemings was a complicated person and shouldn”t be judged by 21st century standards. “Sally influenced Jefferson just as much as he influenced her, if not more,” Seaton said
Both Seaton and Bolcom agree that Sally Hemings was a strong, intelligent woman of her time. According to some sources, she may have visited France with Jefferson to learn French cooking and shed her slave status for some time. Most claim she also fought for her children”s freedom from slavery. Seaton strongly believes that Hemings was an educated woman, unlike most of the female slaves of the time. “She was very bright, and since she was constantly around Jefferson”s daughters, she was exposed to books all the time,” Seaton said.
No one knows whether Sally Hemings ever kept a diary, but if she did, she probably destroyed it for the sake of her children”s and her own futures. Bolcom”s goal in composing the music was to make each song an entry in her diary, giving the audience a glimpse into the woman she was and the time period she lived in.
In addition to Quivar”s performance of “Hemings,” each evening will also include song cycles from “Honey and Rue.” Composed by Andre Previn to a text by Toni Morrison, “Rue” will be performed by accomplished soprano Harolyn Blackwell.