Frances Wright

About Perihelion

Karyn Traut

Jefferson Film Project

Recent Productions




The Jefferson Film Project




A theatrical play about Thomas Jefferson followed by 1/2 hour discussion


"Had she chosen to be a mere iconoclast, Ms. Traut could have had a field day, judging Jefferson by our late-20th-century sensibilities concerning race and sex...she had a different aim: sandblasting some of the myths that obscure the MAN like multiple layers of old cheap paint."
-- Robert McDowell; Raleigh News & Observer (1988)

..."the Jefferson women, . . . unfazed by their ancestor's "greatness," offer a sense of the day-to-day Jefferson . . . that Harold, a black actor employed to play the role of Jefferson, twice attaches an effigy of the great man to his chest is fraught with significance.."
--Dorrie Casey; Leader Magazine (1988

Projected air date: After July 2009

We are currently preparing to raise $500,000 to produce Saturday's Children, a 1 hour and 50 minutes stage play, followed by a 1/2 hour discussion, for national broadcast. Saturday's Children is about Thomas Jefferson and his legacy, both political and familial – legacies that cause ripples to this day. When Saturday's Children was given its world premiere at the Carrboro, North Carolina ArtsCenter in 1988, it caused its own ripples:

Saturday's Children called for a black actor to play the actor who plays Thomas Jefferson. Aetna cited the play in its 1992 Calendar of Black History for this reason.

Saturday's Children also departed from an accepted view that supposes Thomas Jefferson to be the father of Sally Hemings' children. During playwright Karyn Traut's seven years of research that preceded the writing of the script, it appeared that the most likely father of Sally Hemings' children was Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph. This novel view was supported by DNA evidence a decade later. Once again, Saturday's Children made history by being listed in the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission Report as a pre-DNA-test public presentation of the model of Randolph as the progenitor of the Eston Hemings line. Eston was Sally's last child and the one linked by the DNA to the Jefferson male line through the descendants of Thomas and Randolph's uncle, Field Jefferson. Saturday's Children includes, but is not centered on, the issue of Sally Hemings and her children.

(See Endeavors Spring 2002 magazine article: "Which Jefferson" )


The set of Saturday's Children is a spiral. The point of the spiral is to show that history progresses by turning upward and backward while at the same time moving forward. On one platform is the "Real Jefferson," at the end of his life, deciding which of his letters to keep and which to burn. On another platform is a single actress playing "The Jefferson Women" who are, daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter. The two actors playing Jeffersons read only from documented letters and writings.


(Photo of set is from the 1988 production. Spiral sculpture by sculptor Patrick Dougherty; set by James Carnahan. Dougherty described his interpretion of the spiral as a thread connecting the different times.)

On a third level is a contemporary performance artist, Jean, who is trying to talk an African-American actor, Harold, into playing Thomas Jefferson in her performance art project. Arthur, a costumer, is both Jewish and gay (though neither overtly) and adds a bit of comic relief to the intense argument between Jean, who admires Thomas Jefferson, and Harold, who despises him.

(Photo below is of "Harold" and "Arthur" played by Solomon Gibson III and Derrick Ivey from the 1988 production.)

As Jean and Harold argue things out, the three contemporary characters take on the parts of historic figures with Harold regularly playing Jefferson himself. As points are made, the "real Jefferson"or the "Jefferson women" respond from actual writings. Thus a dialogue across time occurs and adds to the dimension and exploration of the argument.

The title: Saturday's Children refers to the expansive clock that Jefferson designed and built over his door at Monticello. The clock displayed the days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, and so on. When mounted, the clock's weights and balance allowed only room for six days on the descending wall. So Jefferson had a hole cut in the floor for the weight to gravitate through the floor to the basement such that the clock could display "Saturday." Hence "Saturday's Children" are the people left in the basement of the American Dream, represented by Jean, Harold and Arthur.

The problem the contemporary characters face is how to get "Saturday" out of the basement of the remarkable clock (which serves as a metaphor for American Democracy) designed and constructed over the existing floorboards of Monticello (which serves as a metaphor for the pre-existing political system.

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Jefferson's Clock

Actual photos from Monticello:



first photo: the clock with the marker for the day of the week (the black signs going down along the corner of the room). "Friday" is just above the floor.












A closer shot of Friday.









Saturday is below the floor, and therefore visible only in the basement.









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1)Derrick Ivey as "Arthur" working puppets by Jeff Storer and Rhonda Pumphreys from the 1988 production.

2) Solomon Gibson III working a puppet as "Harold" playing "Jefferson" encourages someone else to put forth his views in the House of Burgesses.

3) Lena Boyd, Mary Ramsden Smith and Erik Berg portray, "Jean," "The Jefferson Women," and "The Real Jefferson," along with the others, in a theme photo.

4) Erik Berg as "The Real Jefferson" reading from his work in his own time.

Jean, Harold and Arthur, act out imagined scenes, playing the different characters, often utilizing puppets created by Jeff Storer and Rhonda Pumphreys, accompanied by a musical score composed by Richard Robeson.


Harold most often plays Jefferson. (In photo at left he is "playing " a scene in which Jefferson asks another representative to speak for him in the House of Burgesses.)


Debating, wooing, and collaborating, the three improvise scenes from the past until Harold, who hates Thomas Jefferson when the play begins, understands through this dialogue across time,the many dimensions of the man who is arguably the most influential of all the Founding Fathers within the U.S. and one of the most influential of Americans around the globe.





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A 1/2 hour discussion follows the Saturday's Children. Discussants will include two descendants of Thomas Jefferson through his daughter, Martha; an African American poet; a Euro-American professor of biochemistry; an African American composer and humanities scholar; and perhaps others as the project progresses.

We have approached PBS because...

No other serious dramatic work for the American stage depicts Thomas Jefferson using exclusively his own words. Saturday's Children not only represents Thomas Jefferson on stage in his own words but his daughters, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter as well. All historic characters read from their own documented writings. Saturday's Children is an opportunity for Americans to hear these characters' stories from their own pens rather than from those of their interpreters, apologists, and detractors. For that reason it is important that every American have access to this work. A ticket to a Broadway play can cost $100 or more. Even the less expensive monthly fee for cable access is beyond the budget of many. PBS is currently the only medium, available to all Americans, which can air the two and one half hour Satuday's Children, and the post production discussion relatively uninterrupted. In addition, the extensive research Karyn Traut put into this work, seven years in duration, makes Saturday's Children's educational material important to everyone. Saturday's Children will bring new light to current questions and criticisms regarding Thomas Jefferson, arguably our most compelling founding father. At present PBS is the only network that includes in its mission the presentation of educational material suitable for classroom use.

Saturday's Children will stimulate and challenge viewers of all political persuasions. Since both political parties take their names from his "Democratic Republican party," Jefferson's actual words will support thinking on both sides of our current political divide. The two items listed show the appeal to differing political thoughts:

• 1) That the actor who plays Thomas Jefferson is African American appeals to liberal sensibilities.

• 2) That the model put forth that Randolph Jefferson, rather than Thomas Jefferson himself, is the fate of Sally Hemings' children, appeals to conservatives.

We feel it is urgent to do this play now because . . .

The United States is a country founded on an idea. It is not, as are many other countries, a collection of residents of a particular geographic region or genetic stock. If we lose sight of our founding ideals, we lose the bedrock of our character.

Thomas Jefferson put words to the ideals of the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, and continued to advise on the principles of liberty throughout his life in letters to active statesmen.  In a letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787, he wrote from Paris, where he was serving as the American Plenipotentiary to France, his assessment of the Amercan Constitution:

"I will now tell you what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact."

The heated controversy over the paternity of Sally Hemings' children has distracted many Americans from the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson's writings about issues that are still of vital importance to all Americans. In Berkeley, CA, there currently is an effort to change the name of a public school with Jefferson's name to another name.  The parents and students do not want the name of a "slaveowner" on their school. It is sad that in a university community such as Berkeley, so little is known about Thomas Jefferson's writings opposing slavery, that he is reduced in the minds of the public simply to: slave owner. For many, the complexity of our national origins are blurring into all or nothing thinking.

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PBS response:

• Amani Roland, Senior Program Associate of Program Development and Independent Film for PBS, wrote to us in August 2004, "...your project presents a unique portrait of Thomas Jefferson as well as an intriguing theory on the lingering Jefferson-Hemmings (sic) question...Should you secure funding and bring the project to fruition, we would be happy to review a rough cut and let you know our thoughts.”

Steve Tabakin, Series Producer of Drama from WNET 13 in New York, from which Great Performances originates, wrote: “(Saturday’s Children) sounds like a rich and innovative take on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the ongoing pursuit of the mysteries surrounding their relationship. In addition to bringing those historical characters to life, it raises some fascinating questions about the shifting nature of history in a style that reminds me of what Tom Stoppard did so successfully with Arcadia.”

• The Board of UNC-TV, the North Carolina PBS affiliate, station has agreed to consider airing the program once it is completed. Scott Davis, Director of Program Development, has been an involved contact. Karyn and Tom were interviewed on camera for Black Issues Forum by Deborah Holt. The interview covered both Karyn's personal discovery in the '80's of Randolph Jefferson as the potential father for Sally Hemings' children and Tom's explication of the DNA study published in the journal NATURE in 1998. The interview has not yet been aired.


The goal is to raise $500,000 for the pre-production, production, and post-production needs of this film. The experience of the fund-raising staff leads to the conclusion that the majority of the funds for the pre-production and production costs (which require the fastest response from request to decision) will be raised from individual donors with large ($5,000-$50,000), medium ($500-$5,000), and small (under $500) gifts.

Current Totals:

Number of Letters Sent
Fraction Who Have Donated

We will continue to approach individuals through letter and our website.

We will be approaching the North Carolina Humanities Council for support for the taped post production discussion with scholars and others.

THANK YOU! To all our donors, both monetary and in-kind.

If you haven't already, please consider making a contribution: You may send a check or money order to: Perihelion Theater Company, P.O. Box 208, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514

Or: when our contribution page is constructed, you will be able to make a secure donation.


"What you are doing is fundamental. As a scientist it is my goal to seek Truth.

You are taking a historical figure who has been misconstrued and seeking the truth of this individual."

. . . Melvyn Golditch, Ph.D. Fort Worth, Texas (2005)


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