SALLY HEMINGS’ MIND
Public interest in slave Sally Hemings has surged in recent years, especially after DNA tests supported the belief that she was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. On March 16, composer William Bolcom’s song cycle From The Diary of Sally Hemings premiered at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, Washington DC, starring mezzo soprano Florence Quivar.
The libretto was crafted by East Lansing playwright Sandra Seaton, M.A. ’89, a professor of English at Central Michigan University. “It was wonderful,” Seaton said of the premiere. “Just beautiful. We had a reception in the Great Hall just before the concert. About 40 of the descendants of Jefferson-Hemings came, including two whose families were DNA tested—Julia Jefferson Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young.” Sandra admits that writing the text was no easy task, since she had to get into the mind of Sally Hemings.
A veteran writer, Sandra won a Theodore Ward Prize for her play, The Bridge Party, which premiered at MSU in January 2000. Bolcom saw that play, as well as The Will, which debuted in May 1999 at Lansing’s Riverwalk Theatre. “Shortly after seeing that play, Bolcom asked me to write the book for Hemings,” she recalls. “In fact, he told the group that commissioned the work, if Sandra writes the text, then I’ll do the music.” The song cycle also premiered on the West Coast in San Francisco, and will be shown at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall this fall.
“Writing is an extension of my teaching career,” notes Sandra.
Sandra’s text will be published in the Fall 2001 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, a literary journal from the University of Michigan.