Issues of race and interracial relationships can be hot topics even in a modern-day society, where many people think that prejudices are a thing of the past.
In her play "The Third Crossing," making its world debut with Plan-B Theatre Company on Thursday, Debora Threedy examines these delicate topics throughout history.
The play explores the relationship between founding father Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, who allegedly became his mistress after the death of Jefferson's wife and bore at least four children by him.
In Jefferson's time, he defined a "negro" as a person who is at least one-quarter black. So, a child born to one black and one white parent was half-black or a "negro"; a child born to a half-black parent and a white parent was one-quarter black, still a "negro"; but a child born to a one-quarter-black parent and a white parent would be white, he said.
This was what he called "the third crossing" of bloodlines.
Interestingly, by his definition, Sally Hemings was one-fourth black, and their children would have been white.
As interracial relationships between slaves and masters continued, this definition became more confusing -- until it was declared that "one drop" of blood from a black parent defined a person as a "negro."
Children born into slavery with lighter skin usually escaped to the North and passed themselves off as white.
Woman with no voice
Kalyn West, a Weber State University student, is cast in the leading role as Sally Hemings.
She said her fascination with theater began when she auditioned for a school play in the seventh grade. In high school, she was given the role of Belle in the school production of "Beauty and the Beast," and West said that was the point in her life when she knew she would pursue a career in theater.
Since then, she participated briefly in community theater before moving on to working as a paid actress. She is excited to be a part of this Plan-B production.
"As soon as I read the script, I was so enraptured by it and I wanted to be a part of it," she said.
She sees her character, as well as Jefferson's, as people conflicted by their feelings. She points out that Jefferson often did not practice what he preached. He said that he believed slavery was wrong, but he owned slaves and said that it was necessary. He also justified his actions by saying blacks had smaller brains and were better-suited for labor than white people.
If he believed that, did he also father children with a black woman?
West was moved by the story of Hemings and troubled that she did not have a chance to tell her story. "It is really beautiful and honorable to flesh her out and give her a fighting chance," West said of the opportunity to develop her as a character.
"We think we are past racism, but there are still bitter feelings. Slavery is a blemish on America's face that can't be ignored. It should be thought about and learned from," West said.
To illustrate the bitter feelings that persist, Threedy intersperses scenes depicting more recent court cases into the story, showing that even 50 or 60 years ago interracial couples were openly discriminated against.
In many states, it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
"This play is the perfect marriage of her two worlds," said director Jerry Rapier, who described Threedy as a gifted law professor as well as a gifted playwright. "Through this intersection of her two worlds, Debora has helped us to really see things differently. We hope this work creates a conversation that becomes the beginning, not the end, of the experience."
Carleton Bluford, of Ogden, is cast in multiple roles. One of the characters he plays is Madison, Sally Hemings' second son and the only one of the four children to have dark skin.
In the play, Bluford's character has a harder time than his siblings, who are able to move away and start new lives as white people when they become adults. Even though he is eventually freed, he is always seen as a "freed slave" rather than a white person because his skin is not light enough.
As a black person with lighter skin, Bluford said, he can relate to what his character is going through, except in reverse. He has had the feeling at times in his life that he "wasn't black enough" to fit in with other blacks, much like Madison wasn't white enough to fit into Caucasian society.
This is Bluford's favorite of Threedy's plays. He hopes audiences will walk away from the play with a renewed sense of love for all people.
"It is really a story about love, as cliché as that sounds," he said.
Rapier said it is a play to be enjoyed as well as learned from.
"Threedy finds a way to make history personal and to shed new light on a historic figure and make the issue personal to us," he said.
Playwright reflects on interracial issues
Playwright Debora Threedy of Salt Lake City said she still remembers the first time she saw a black person.
Raised in a “lily-white” suburb in the Midwest, she said she had no interactions with people of other races until she was riding a bus with her mother at around age 7. An African-American person got on and Threedy, in a shocked state of innocence, asked her mother if the person’s skin had been burned in a fire.
Her mother’s reaction was to hush her up, and there was no further discussion.
Now, as a law professor at the University of Utah, Threedy frequently lectures about racial and women’s issues. She calls what she experienced in her childhood an “appalling ignorance” about various race.
Threedy believes that prejudices are ingrained in our society as a result of slavery, and she would like to see all people become more educated about the way things were, and in some ways still are, when it comes to differences in skin color.
“Race is an artificial construct. Biologically, it doesn’t exist. It is like saying people with brown eyes are a different race from people with blue eyes,” she said.
We are all the same, but we have assigned the word “race” to different skin colors, she said.
Long before Threedy went into the law profession, she was a playwright at heart. She wrote her first play while in grade school, before she had even seen an actual stage production.
Her work on “The Third Crossing” began in 1995 after she read a novel about Sally Hemings that was written as if it were from her point of view.
The work got Threedy thinking about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and after much research, she came up with her own interpretation.
But, Threedy said, she held off finishing her work because she felt the play was coming off too historical.
Finally in 2005, she discovered a way to bring the play up to speed with modern audiences by including court cases on interracial relationships from the 1950s and ’60s, and on hate crimes against black and white couples that have occurred even more recently.
She kept the storyline as accurate as possible, using direct quotes when available. But, since there are no journals that speak directly about Sally Hemings and nothing recorded by her personally, most of the character is made up from historical inferences and Threedy’s imagination.
This is Threedy’s third full-length play that has been produced.
She is finding that she enjoys writing plays that comment on social issues the way this one does, and she said she hopes her work will help audience members open their minds and think about race and interracial relationships from a new perspective.