By Rachael Carnes
SALLY (Born Sarah) — 14 years old.
ELIZABETH (Called “Betty”) — Sarah’s mother.
SUSANNA — Sarah’s grandmother, a ghost.
(These three women should be played by African-American performers.)
SETTING: Underneath Monticello, in the mansion’s south wing — In a cold, windowless room laid with plaster and brick.
TIME: 2018 and 1787
At rise, lights up half on a space, cordoned off with string tied to four posts, like an archaeological site, 13.8 feet wide and 14 feet long, the size of Sally Heming’s windowless room at Monticello, where she bore six of Thomas Jefferson’s children. The space features a twin bed, a small table with a ceramic pitcher and washing bowl and a clipping from a flowering dogwood, the state flower of Virginia. Somewhere within the space sits a fire poker.
SUSANNA stands in a pool of bright light, wearing a dress and head covering in the style of the Hausa people of Nigeria. It should appear as though she has been beaten down with dust.
As SUSANNA’s opening monologue develops, SALLY puts on a white apron, washing her hands and face in the water, while her mother, ELIZABETH, wrings out and gives her daughter a make-shift washcloth, preening her daughter’s clothes.
The three women stay within the confines of the demarcated space.
SUSANNA: (To the audience.) Human beings are not well-adapted to burns. That’s why they hurt more than a cut — When you get a burn, at first, you might not notice it — Well, you notice it, but it doesn’t bother you, not like a cut does. Cuts hurt right away — So much you can’t believe it! But give it a minute to heal, and the blood finds its way together again, starts to knit up, to mend. You put that pressure on and you wait and hold still and maybe you peek to see if the bleeding’s stopped — Just a quick peek, but it stops throbbing pretty soon. Burns aren’t like that. Think about it — What in the state of nature prepared us for burns? Animals don’t have fire — Only we do. They don’t have pots and pans. I’m always pulling some pot out of the heat and I forget my mitt. Do you do that? Dogs and pigs and cows and sheep — They don’t have to worry! You know why it hurts? You ever wonder why? I’ll tell you. It’s because as the pain soaks in, spreads, deepening down into your layers of skin — it’s going into three-dimensions, not just the surface, it’s destroying tissue. And your cells flood with fluid, trying to protect — The water from your body rushes in and the cells in your hand or your face or your back burst and the nerves scream and you lay awake wondering if your hand or your face or your back or whatever part of you is burned might ever feel right again. And you stare at this brick floor —
Lights up full. SUSANNA assumes a role in the preparations.
SALLY: I know each brick on the floor — I’ve counted every one!
ELIZABETH: And how many are there?
SALLY: Is that good?
ELIZABETH: It seems a good round number.
SALLY: But I long to go outside! Please?
ELIZABETH: From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
SUSANNA: Something our master says —
SALLY: And the plaster — I know how many beams there are. I’ll close my eyes. Ask me!
ELIZABETH: How many beams are there?
SALLY: Seven! See? Big beams! I hear them creak when people come.
ELIZABETH: Sally —
ELIZABETH: The day is fine.
SALLY: I don’t have a window. Will you please ask Mr. Jefferson if I could —
ELIZABETH: Master says we must contrive a building in such a manner that the finest and most noble parts of it be exposed to public view, and the less agreeable removed from sight as much as possible.
SUSANNA: Is that the blueprint for a house — Or a country?
ELIZABETH: Take off your shirt — Wash your armpits.
SALLY: Yes, ma’am. (She does.)
SUSANNA: A mansion on a hill — A tunnel within it.
ELIZABETH: I know the tunnel. I don’t want to go back there —
SUSANNA: Slaves — unseen —
ELIZABETH: Hurrying back and forth carrying platters of food, fresh tableware, ice, beer, wine —
SALLY: Can I try wine?
SALLY: In Paris!
SUSANNA: While above them 20, 30, or 40 guests listening to Jefferson’s dinner-table —
SALLY: It all sounds so exciting!
ELIZABETH: You’re too young for wine!
SALLY: But Paris!
ELIZABETH: Now — You’ll be a good girl with Miss Mary. You’ll help her?
SALLY: Yes, I will.
SUSANNA: At one end of the tunnel is the kitchen — at the other the icehouse.
SALLY: Master says we’ll be near the Palais Royale —
SUSANNA: Hot and cold — The kitchen and icehouse —
SALLY: Perfume, musical instruments, toys, candy, gloves —
ELIZABETH: You will see only what he —
SALLY: Master says — They have hot air balloons!
SUSANNA: You get a burn and you’re walking through that tunnel forever to find—
SALLY: Master says we’ll see a street called “the place of the stars” because that’s where all the roads reach out — Like this. And a place where men play chess all day!
ELIZABETH: You won’t see anything. Now —
SUSANNA: The tunnel’s a hive where enslaved cooks and their helpers produce one course after another — But you just want a piece of ice for that hand or face or back or whatever body —
SALLY: When he visits, Mr. Jefferson speaks of his revolving doors — And something called a “dumbwaiter” — He says that the food in his dining room appears as if by magic!
SUSANNA: When I was a girl, I played in the river. Until —
ELIZABETH: Mr. Jefferson —
SUSANNA: You’ll bear his babies in this room.
ELIZABETH: You’re so very light skinned —
SUSANNA: Plantation — A prison camp worked by hundreds of slaves.
SALLY: Can I visit Mulberry Row?
ELIZABETH: You don’t belong there. You’re refined — A lady!
SALLY: But I don’t have a window. Ladies must have windows. Mary has a window!
SUSANNA: You’re going to Paris!
ELIZABETH: I came here as a dowry of my missus — Her personal slave —
SALLY: I was a baby — I know the floorboards! — I’ve counted every one.
SUSANNA: (To ELIZABETH) You were a girl when I showed you how to —
SALLY: But Paris! I don’t speak French.
ELIZABETH: Your master does — He’s quite sophisticated.
SUSANNA: Tell her.
ELIZABETH: No —
SALLY: Tell me what?
SUSANNA: She’s no innocent.
SALLY: I’ve been to Mulberry Row! I’ve seen them punishing the boys —
ELIZABETH: Silly girl —
SUSANNA: Tell her.
ELIZABETH: This is —
ELIZABETH: This is what you should do — When you go to Paris.
SALLY: Do what?
SUSANNA: The water — It comes from my home. I carried it here with me in my tears.
ELIZABETH: This bowl of water will —
SUSANNA: Tell her what it’s for.
ELIZABETH: It’s for you to clean yourself.
SALLY: I know that!
ELIZABETH: To make yourself whole again.
SUSANNA: Cool water — Cool compresses — Cover the burn with a clean cloth. A little honey —
ELIZABETH: He likes it when you put a little honey on your —
SALLY: What do you mean?
ELIZABETH: When he comes to you, you have to be willing. It’s better that way.
SUSANNA: I know every floor, every wall, every ceiling.
SUSANNA: Count the bricks.
ELIZABETH: Think of pleasant things — The nice weather outside.
SALLY: But I don’t have a window. The place of stars —
ELIZABETH: This flower — See — This little flower? Keep it by the bed, and look at it.
ELIZABETH: When he wants you —
SUSANNA: Mr. Jefferson is a good man, fine, upstanding! This is a good, decent family.
ELIZABETH: When you get to Paris wash your arms.
SUSANNA: Your armpits —
ELIZABETH: Wash your groin. The cracks and crevices.
SALLY: Stop! You’re embarrassing me.
ELIZABETH: He likes it that way —
SUSANNA: Clean yourself.
ELIZABETH: Make yourself ready.
SALLY: Be pleasant.
SUSANNA: He’s a great man. And they’ll call you his —
ELIZABETH: “Partner of” — Partner of Jefferson.
ELIZABETH: He will want you — Just make it easy for him. It’s better that way.
SUSANNA: And your babies might be free one day! Don’t you want that?
SALLY: What does that mean?
ELIZABETH: It’s the enterprise — The revolving door — He’s a busy man. Big undertakings!
SUSANNA: The water will cool the burn —
ELIZABETH: I was eleven — My master said I was pretty.
SUSANNA: You’re so pretty.
SALLY: No! I’ll run away!
SUSANNA: My floor was dirt — The first time the men — Then the ship —
ELIZABETH: Mine was wood — In the house — He came in the night where I slept next to you.
SUSANNA: When he was done with me I went outside — The stars were so bright that night over the ocean —
SALLY: I’ll fly!
ELIZABETH: Do what he wants — Or he’ll sell you away. We’ll never hear from you again —
SUSANNA: My father in chains. My brother. My uncle — Down below in the ship’s cracks and crevices.
ELIZABETH: Look at you, Sally. Your very own room!
SUSANNA: I had to make it easy for him — But I was free. I could walk. I could sit. I could see —
SALLY: (Picking up the fire poker.) I’ll burn myself — With the fire here — Make myself ugly.
SUSANNA: A room all to your own —
ELIZABETH: You’ll be a mistress! Make it easy for him —
SALLY: He won’t want me with scars —
SUSANNA: The place of stars — A real little lady! She’s so pretty. I’m proud of how fair-skinned you are.
ELIZABETH: The babies you bear might be free one day. Don’t you want that?
SUSANNA: The babies you bury —
SALLY: I won’t have his babies! I’m going to Paris to be a companion to his daughter —
ELIZABETH: She’s your blood.
SUSANNA: When a burn does not heal it leaves a scar.
ELIZABETH: When he comes to you — Make it easy. Laugh at his jokes. Let him kiss you. Try to like it.
SUSANNA: And then when he leaves — There’s the water —
ELIZABETH: The water will cool the burn —
SUSANNA: Put a cool compress on your —
SALLY: I won’t! I don’t want to —
SUSANNA: So pretty.
ELIZABETH: In the morning — Smooth your sheets. Fold your blanket. Tidy up.
SUSANNA: You’ll be called his mistress. Concubine — His lover.
ELIZABETH: The “partner of” the great Thomas Jefferson.
SUSANNA: When I was a girl, we played in the river.
ELIZABETH: I was a girl when you taught me to —
SALLY: There. All clean.
End of play.
Rachael Carnes discovered playwriting in 2016, and had her first professional production last year. Her play Fumblewinter was among those selected for the 2018 William Inge Festival New Play Lab Series. Her play Partner Of — was recently selected for presentation at the 2018 Midwest Dramatists Center Conference. Rachael’s plays have been, or will be, produced in Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids, IA; Ames; IA; Chattanooga, TN; Louisville, KY; Eugene, OR; West Orange, NJ; Raleigh, NC; St. Louis, MO; Leeds, UK; and Akron, OH. She has had multiple productions in NYC and London. With a collaborative spirit, Rachael brought together 20 playwrights from across the country, creating end editing PLAYWRIGHTS SAY NEVER AGAIN TO SCHOOL SHOOTINGS, a full-length work that has had staged readings in theaters nationwide. Website: https://www.rachaelcarnes.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachael.carnes