The Third Crossing. Photo: Rick Pollock
As the second play in a season of all female playwrights, and Plan B Theatre Company’s 62nd world premiere, The Third Crossing has plenty to bring to my feminist table. The play won the 2010 Fratti-Newman Political Play Contest, and it’s about to spur some conversation on a whole lot of social issues.
Written by local playwright and University of Utah Professor Debora Threedy, The Third Crossing examines the interracial relationship between Thomas Jefferson (played by Bob Nelson) and Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave (played by Kalyn West). According to Jerry Rapier, the director of The Third Crossing, Jefferson and Hemings were “the founding couple of interracial relationships.” Intermixed throughout the Jefferson/Hemings narrative are additional scenes dealing with interracial relations throughout America’s history, each with its own message about race––or more specifically, racism. Threedy was originally inspired to write The Third Crossing after reading Sally Hemings, a novel by Barbara Chase-Riboud. “Sally Hemings … was a mixed race person at a time in this country where that notion, the whole concept of mixed race, was brand new. People were just trying to wrap their heads around it,” Threedy says. “As I worked on it more and more, the thing that became even more entrancing was that today we’re still trying to wrap our heads around the idea of someone who could be different races.”
“We should explain what the title of the play actually means, ‘cause it’s kind of jolting,” says Rapier. “There was a perspective early in the history of this country, that the crossing of black bloodlines and white bloodlines three times would ‘cleanse’ the bloodline and yield a white person, which is horrifying for me to even say, but the way that applies to the Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson relationship is that their children were the third crossing and some of her children were passable as white children … but they were still slaves in his home. It’s so difficult to wrap our minds around slavery period, but slavery that isn’t so obviously drawn based on skin color is even one step crazier.” The Third Crossing deals with this craziness on a variety of levels. While Nelson and West stick to their characters, the rest of the cast (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, Carleton Bluford, Deena Marie Manzanares and David Fetzer) go through four to five characters each, as the play jumps back and forth through time with its interweaved scenes. These additional scenes not only examine what race meant during Jefferson and Hemings’ time, but also what race means today. West, who is still a student at Weber State University, does an amazing job of expressing how these biases can affect someone on different, and very personal, levels.
One can’t help but compare the issues of racism and interracial marriage covered within the play to the current issues of gender bias and gay marriage. “These aren’t simple things, which I think the play illustrates too, they don’t go away because people are uncomfortable with them. They compound themselves,” says Rapier. I found the situations where mixed race characters within the play endeavor to “pass” as white quite fascinating. Or was it quite disturbing? I forget. You see, “passing” as white translates easily to “passing” as straight, and The Third Crossing does an excellent job of illustrating that there’s something incredibly wrong when people need to “pass” as something instead of being accepted as they are. Whether they realize it or not, white people––and straight people, for that matter––have always enjoyed some form of privilege that other groups do not. “It is very difficult for people of privilege to give up that privilege,” says Threedy. “[There are some men] who get very defensive if you point out that there’s something in the organization that is stacked in the favor of men. The same holds true for racial privilege. With the best will in the world, it’s still very difficult for whites to give up the privilege that whiteness has given them, that they don’t even have to think about.” This is illustrated within the play when Sally Hemings asks Jefferson to free her and her children––a proposal which he refuses.
For Rapier, the cast of The Third Crossing provides a “multi-generational perspective of an issue that doesn’t seem to get any clearer, no matter how many generations pass.” Manzanares, who most of you might recognize from her City Weekly videos, presents the audience with multiple angles from which to view the issues through her various roles in the play, and Fetzer jumps back and forth from empathetic characters to detestable characters through the various scenes. The play brings up more than its fair share of current racial issues, too. “It’s so amazing to me how not careful people are with what they say now, and it’s all racially motivated, so we just need whatever we can do to help create a better dialogue. Especially in a place like this,” says Rapier. The Third Crossing will surely start some dialogue.
The Third Crossing runs March 8 – 18, Thurs.–Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner. Tickets are $20, or $10 for students. Check out a video from the performance here: http://youtu.be/h4et3kSgKCM.