A few years ago, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Informally known as the Lynching Museum, the Memorial consists of more than 800 coffin-shaped oxidized steel markers engraved with the names of more than 4,400 Black Americans who were publicly tortured and murdered in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Before then, I had visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, once a forced labor camp that is now a museum with an exclusive focus on the lives of the enslaved. On the grounds of the Whitney stands a granite Wall of Honor with the names of more than 350 enslaved people who lived and died working there, as well as a Field of Angels monument bearing the names of 2,200 enslaved children who died in the surrounding St. John the Baptist Parish between the 1820s and 1860s.

Mindful of the 3,000 names inscribed on the 9-11 Memorial in New York and the 58,000 names of servicemen engraved on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, I became fascinated by how the listing of names has the power to keep past events present and vital. These memorials displaying the names of those slain serve to humanize individuals by opening a doorway into their lives while simultaneously shining a light on the mistakes we have made as a society.

The Reclamation of Madison Hemings was envisioned as, and commissioned to be, a two-person play about Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette Jefferson, two men who were enslaved at Thomas Jefferson’s forced labor camp, Monticello. When I started researching the lives of these men, I came across the names of hundreds of other enslaved people who lived and died building and maintaining Monticello. The stories of these individuals were conspicuously absent from the historical information offered upon my first visit to the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Through continued research, I discovered names and glimpses into the lives of the others who had been enslaved on that hallowed ground. I felt a deep obligation to acknowledge and embrace the lives of these people who had been ignored by others for decades. However, my assignment was to write a two-person play. Faced with this quandary, I thought of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Whitney, the Vietnam Memorial, and others like them, and became determined to translate the power of these granite and steel memorials into an ephemeral flesh and blood performance for the stage. The Reclamation of Madison Hemings is the result of that effort.

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