History has never been so much fun or presented in such an up-close and personal way as it is at the Castillo Theatre (543 W. 42nd St.) with its production of “Sally and Tom (The American Way).” This production has the audience seated on cushioned benches on the sides and in the middle of the open space. You can even change your seat during the performance, which comes in handy since the actors have free run of the theater. They can be on an elevated stage on the right side or on the floor-level stage, more center of the stage, to the left of the theater or simply walk among and, at times, sit next to the audience members.
Imagine having historical characters tell their stories with a passion and do it sitting next to you or standing directly in front of you, looking straight into your eyes.
The book and lyrics for this production are the creation of Fred Newman, and he has put together an information-filled, candid look at American history. He brings to the forefront the story of President Thomas Jefferson and the scandal exposed by newspaper writer James T. Callender, who wrote about Jefferson having an affair and many children with his slave Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha.
This production is told from the voices and views of several characters: Callender, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Hemings and Madison Jefferson, one of Hemings and Jefferson’s slave children. While you hear dates and learn about the details of this scandal, you do so through songs, which are sometimes amusing numbers. At other times, songs are used to reveal a character’s frame of mind and admitted weaknesses. Newman also maintains a sense of common sense and truthfulness with Hemings. She admits that she loves Jefferson and won’t leave him, but she is harmed by their relationship and the exposure from the newspaper story.
One character who gets to have his say is Madison Jefferson. He narrates the story, describing people and events that happened before his birth. By the end of the play, the characters have been dead for some time but still admit that the truth about Jefferson has never come out. Newman makes a reverberating, strong political statement when he has the characters state repeatedly that it seems a hatred of darkness is clearly “the American way” and that the founding fathers never succeeded in creating a country in which all men and women are equal.
Go and see this wonderful cast, which includes Adam Kemmerer, Ava Jenkins, Brian D. Hills, Dick Nackman and Sean Patrick Gibbons. There is also excellent direction by Gabrielle L. Kurlander.
“Sally and Tom” will play again at the Castillo Theatre April 20, 21, 28 and 29 and May 4 through 6. For tickets, go to www.castillo.org or call the box office at (212) 941-1234.