Thoughts from Director Nataki Garrett on "Jefferson's Garden"

Editor’s Note: Nataki Garrett is a director with more than 25 years of experience in professional theatre. Her forte and passion is in the fostering and development of new work, such as “Jefferson’s Garden.” In the following post, Garrett shares why she’s excited to collaborate with playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and present the new play at Ford’s Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

When I read Jefferson’s Garden, I do so with urgency and a deep desire to understand the central question of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, which is Freedom.

Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault speaks with “Jefferson’s Garden” Director Nataki Garrett and Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker at First Rehearsal. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Freedom, according to Jefferson, is an inalienable right granted by "the creator." I am arrested by the idea of freedom as a flimsy, fleeting designation granted to you by someone or something other than you. I keep thinking about James Baldwin’s question: "What white people have to do, is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have the black man [sic] in the first place ... and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why?"  

If slavery is a convention invented by the oppressor, then being enslaved is also an invention. As an African-American, if my being in this country is an invention based on that enslavement, then my freedom is relegated to the perception of my humanity. This country was founded on that conundrum and embedded in our legacy is our perpetual willingness to allow freedom to remain flimsy and malleable.

I am excited that playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker has chosen to ask this question through the experience of both the Quaker immigrants like Christian’s family—who come to this new land in search of hope and possibility, fleeing prosecution—and the enslaved characters in the play— whose freedom is relegated to the perception of their humanness, which is connected to their monetary value and not their self-worth in this newly formed republic.

Jefferson’s Garden is an adventure allowing us to wander through the world of young America and look for our own reflection through the story and characters the players inhabit. I am interested and excited that this play asks the audience to connect itself to history through the characters, their choices and their experiences. The audience can begin to ask, who am I in this story, where do I fit in its history and how do I continue to support or dismantle the consequences of history today in the 21st century?

Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and Director Nataki Garrett (both seated) with the design team of “Jefferson’s Garden” at Ford’s Theatre. Second Row (L to R): Jennifer L. Nelson (Dramaturgy), Ivania Stack (Costume Design), Anne Nesmith (Hair and Wigs), Laura Mroczkowski (Lighting), Milagros Ponce de León (Scenic Design) and John Gromada (Sound Design). Photo by Carolina Dulcey.

In the Ford’s Theatre production, I have cast local actors. As the characters in this story reflect the people of D.C., Virginia and Maryland in the 1700s, the people of this rich, diverse acting community become immediately reflective of the history of this part of the country. I was born in Washington, D.C., at Washington Hospital Center and spent a considerable time here with my family during the summers after we moved away. It is important that the theatre become more and remain more inclusive of the voices of women playwrights and reflect their point of view in the 21st century. This will enable us to reach a new generation of theater makers and audiences. That is why the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is important to me. 

Photo of Felicia Curry by Christopher Mueller.
Photo of Felicia Curry as Susannah by Christopher Mueller.

I am also excited for the opportunity to present Jefferson’s Garden at the landmark Ford’s Theatre in the context of its place at the apex of another historic era’s quest for Freedom. I am excited by the physical aspects of Ford’s and playing with the space’s dimensions and facades. The hardiness of any facade is our perception of its sturdiness. So the garden is as beautiful as we perceive. Freedom is as free as we perceive. Humanity is as human as we perceive. All is relative to the value granted it by its creator.

Jefferson’s Garden begins January 19, 2018 at Ford’s Theatre

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Nataki Garrett is Associate Artistic Director of Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company and formerly Associate Artistic Director of CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP). She has directed in theaters nationwide and internationally in Bellagio, Italy; Edinburgh, Scotland; Paris, France; and in Rwanda and Uganda. Her work can be heard on the radio through L.A. Theatre Works audio theatre collection and for NPR, recorded live at the Skirball Cultural Arts Center. For more information, click here.