Reclamation of Invisible Lives


Manny Buckley and Jon Hudson Odom in "The Reclamation of Madison Hemings" by American Blues Theater. (Michael Brosilow)

(L to R) Manny Buckley and Jon Hudson Odom in “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” at American Blues Theater. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 Stars

Can you free yourself from the past, particularly if your past was filled with unhappiness? Can you find the good times you remembered? Can you shake loose the pain or reclaim your legacy? These are some of the themes explored by playwright Charles Smith in “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” on stage at the American Blues Theater. 

Shortly after the end of the Civil War two former slaves ruminate on their experiences living and working within Monticello, the estate of former President Thomas Jefferson.

Arriving at Monticello as a boy, Israel Gillette Jefferson (Manny Buckley) was originally assigned to making nails in the nailery with his brother, Moses. Eventually he was moved into the house as a fetcher, rising to the position of footman at the time of Jefferson’s death.

Madison Hemings (Jon Hudson Odom), together with his siblings, lived a life of comparative privilege by slavery standards. They were the product of the union between the former President of the United States and his slave, Sally Hemings.

Brothers Israel and Moses were auctioned off after the death of Jefferson and had vowed to meet at Montecillo on the anniversary of their purchase date if ever they were freed. Madison was freed as part of a stipulation in Jefferson’s will. After emancipation they found themselves as neighbors settled in Pike County, Ohio.

Madison has now agreed to accompany Israel to reclaim a bit of their past. In doing so they are reunited in spirit with family and friends who lived and died alongside them in bondage and provided what little love and support they were able to find in a cruel and oppressive system.

Centered around a campfire, the banter between the two is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as the two men, seemingly suspended in time, conjecture and bicker about whether Moses has come and gone, whether he is delayed or whether he will come at all.

The playwright’s dialog in this well produced production gives voice to a traditionally unheard side of American History. It is peppered with humor that establishes an obvious underlying bond between the two men who do not always share the same point-of-view regarding the effects of the war, their new station in life, their view of the man who controlled them, nor how much longer they should linger.

Credit to director Chuck Smith who no doubt contributed to the natural cadence and rhythm that comes to life from the mouths of Odom and Buckley. Their conversations enlighten us as to the peculiar realities of the Monticello household, including the obvious hypocrisy of the person who penned “All men are created equal” into the Constitution of the United States. This is all done without preaching or lecturing.

There is the matter of a reference to a blind white mule often heard braying offstage. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this device represents echoes of slavery. Though out-of-sight, starving and debilitated it is not easily silenced and not yet dead.

In regard to stagecraft the scenic design and props by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn were suitably evocative, with the presence of a large buckboard wagon offering an imposing sense of time and place.

The costumes of Lily Wallis demonstrated an appreciative attention to detail down to the bow-tied gatherings of Israel’s long-johns. I did however find the lighting by Jared Gooding and Rachel West to be flat. With the exception of an impending storm it did not add much to the atmospherics or mood.

This was my first visit to the new home of the well-respected award-winning American Blues Theater one block north of Bryn Mawr on Lincoln Avenue.

It was refreshing to see that the theater’s board, under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside, elected to add a bit of style to the design rather than go with a simply barebones “get away as cheap as we can” approach. The seats are comfortable and relatively spacious in terms of leg room.

The proscenium stage proportionally seems unusually wide compared to its depth especially as the theater seating area is also more wide than deep. Though not technically a thrust the generous apron provides a gentle curve that adds an even greater sense of intimacy for the 137-seat audience.

The spacious contemporary look of the lobby and theater, sporting wood paneling with metal detailing, belies the building’s humble history as a former Walgreen’s and most recently a Dollar General. I live only about three blocks away and am happy to have ABT as a new neighbor.

DETAILS: “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” is at American Blues Theater, 5627 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through March 24, 2024. Running time is a little more than 90 minutes with a short intermission. For tickets and information visit or call (773) 654-3103.

Reno Lovison

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