When Nataki Garrett was 9 or 10 years old, her aunt took Garrett, her sister, and two cousins to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello. Garrett remembers walking through the gardens and main house of the estate, hearing a tour guide drone on about the fountain pen Jefferson had used to write historical documents as a founding father of the United States. But at no point during the tour did the guide show visitors the cabins of enslaved people who built and maintained the estate or devote time to their stories. Garrett’s memory of the tour is punctuated by small, sharp exhalations from her aunt Delores.
“My aunt was so upset,” Garrett recalls. “Not enough to say something—she was escorting four young, Black children in a crowd of almost exclusively white families—and this was in the late 70s, early 80s. Back then, you just shut up. But she sneered all the way through and you could hear her going ‘Ugh! Well!’”
Garrett, 35 years later, who was raised in “a very civil rights-minded, Black consciousness, revolutionary household,” is directing the American premiere of Jefferson’s Garden, a new piece of historical fiction by British-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker that debuted in the United Kingdom in 2015. The drama, part of Washington, D.C.’s 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival, follows real and imagined characters during the American Revolution from battlefields to Paris to Monticello.
In the play, Christian (Christopher Dinolfo), a Quaker pacifist, defies his family to fight in the Revolution. Susannah (Felicia Curry), an enslaved woman, is tempted to fight for the British when they promise her liberty. These two main characters cross paths with Sally and James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and others, who all make compromises with heavy consequences.
“There’s a popular sense that decisions which affect people’s lives are made at the Capitol, or in the White House, or at the Pentagon—these places that have been imbued with power. The conceit of this play says that some decisions are made at the seats of power, but some are made while people are drinking beer at a party, or over tea in a garden,” Garrett counters. “These big decisions that help us live our lives—or tell us how to live our lives, depending on who you are—are made by people. And a garden that feels beautifully innocuous is also a place where people compromise and become hypocrites and do not tell the truth, and where someone can devastate an entire people by allowing the scenery to become the most important thing.”
Audiences will remember Garrett, associate artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, from her highly celebrated production of An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth in 2016. Her direction of that play caught the attention of Ford’s Theatre.
“I don’t really seek out plays that deal with American enslavement, but they tend to find me, and I don’t deny the opportunities to do them,” Garrett says of the thematic connections between the two productions. “I tend to direct plays that give voice to the voiceless in our society. If there’s an opportunity to shed light on a subject, I move toward those stories first.”
Three actors from An Octoroon appear in Jefferson’s Garden: Maggie Wilder, Kathryn Tkel, and Felicia Curry. Garrett describes the most challenging aspect of directing the piece as finding common ground between Wertenbaker’s poetry—initially written for a British audience—and the digestion of the text by American actors who feel closely connected to the story, to produce the play for an American audience.
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
January 19 – February 8, 2018
Details and tickets
“When we’re battling over a moment, I have to keep saying, ‘But you have to understand—we’re standing on the soil where it happened. And these people who are vibrating on the stage are feeling the blood and the ghosts of what’s in the land,’” Garrett says.
She describes the negotiation of British and American perspectives on the same events as a form of cultural translation.
“In some parts I feel like I’m a tour guide.”
When Garrett was 6, her family moved from Washington, D.C. to California. Every year, she would return to D.C. for the summer, and she later attended Virginia Union University in Richmond. The summer after her first year of college she worked as a tour guide for Tourmobile, a hop-on, hop-off bus that circumscribed the National Mall, looped through Arlington, then returned to the Mall. Of all the sightseeing destinations on the tour, the Jefferson Memorial struck Garrett as the most out of place.
“Whenever we’d go around Jefferson’s memorial, we’d spend three sentences talking about Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the time talking about the cherry trees. And I would think about how isolated he is from the rest of these memorials,” Garrett reflects. “I always think about that, especially when directing this play. There’s something about sending him out there that feels like an element of shaming. It’s as if to say that the same person who dreams up these ideals on which we base our entire society is the same person who stumbled through the hypocrisy of humanity and found himself ultimately just like everybody else. When people with ideals don’t meet their own standard, we isolate ourselves from them, because they are as capable of making us dream about something as they are of killing the dream within us.”
One theme that pervades Jefferson’s Garden is the cultivation of ideas that shape a nation. The concept of slavery flourished in the garden of America, and its roots still shape the course of events like the deadly clash between white supremacists and peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Monticello sits.
“The treachery is in the ground, and still gets re-folded back into it, and still yields the fruit of treachery, which is terror and oppression,” Garrett says. Despite the genius of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas for the nation’s future, she notes, he still owned more the 600 people in his lifetime, still had them whipped, and still fathered children by Sally Hemings, who, as his property, could not consent.
In August 2017, a few months before the march in Charlottesville, Garrett returned to Monticello for the first time since childhood, this time in the company of the cast of Jefferson’s Garden. What she found upon her second visit was a complete 180 degree turn from her first: historical context about slavery permeated the estate; a University of Virginia student and tour guide she dubbed “Super Woke Steve” gushed information that quashed the image of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder; the weight of all the information, Garrett says, made her reminisce to her first visit at 9 years old, and wish that she could hear more about the flowers in the garden for a change. But she was thrilled to see how much ground had been gained towards prioritizing the perspectives of oppressed peoples in the story.
When Jefferson’s Garden plays in Washington, D.C. before its first American audience, Garrett hopes that it too will act as a vehicle for progress.
“The question I want the audience to ask is: Who am I in the bodies of the people who are reflected on the stage, and how can I be better? If you think of building government as a series of generational ideas that are passed down and changed, then how are we evolving those ideas?” Garrett pauses, then adds with a laugh, “And I hope they have a little bit of fun.”