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After more than 20 years, James Pendleton's play about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may finally make it to a local stage. 

"Rite" No Longer Wrong

It was 1976, the year of America's bicentennial, and a special committee in Richmond was considering how Virginia should mark the occasion. James Pendleton, at that time an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, submitted a play he had written to the committee. Called "Rite of Passage," the historical drama focused on the political tribulations of Virginia's favorite son, Thomas Jefferson. The committee was excited about the play and told Pendleton that they would look for an appropriate venue to stage it. The playwright was delighted. Little did he know that this was just the first step on a frustrating journey that would last more than 20 years.

The committee ultimately nixed the production. After further review, they decided that the play, which deals in part with Jefferson's clandestine relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, was too controversial. "In the '70s, the attitude was 'we don't want to talk about that,'" Pendleton says.

The playwright revised the two-hour play into a 90-minute adaptation for television. In 1979, this version was filmed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in Connecticut and was being considered by CBS. But the network never broadcast the film, again deeming it too controversial.

Pendleton moved on to other projects but he didn't give up on "Rite of Passage." In 1988, he adapted the piece yet again, this time into a movie screenplay which subsequently won Virginia's Governor's Screenwriting Award. Even so, no studio would consider producing the script because it presents the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings as fact, not conjecture.

Pendleton shelved the piece for 10 years. But the playwright says he is "bringing [the play] back to life" in the wake of widespread media attention that DNA analysis offers strong evidence that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children.

"This is a play whose time has come," Pendleton says. "Now that [the Jefferson-Hemings relationship] has been validated by science, there has been a resurgence of interest." The play is currently being considered for production by at least two theaters in the state. (Pendleton would not divulge theater names, pending an official announcement by the theaters.)

Ironically, CBS, which rejected "Rite of Passage" in 1979, recently held a casting call in Richmond for a miniseries on Hemings and Jefferson. The miniseries, which is in pre-production and doesn't have a definite title or cast yet, will focus primarily on Hemings. A1995 movie, "Jefferson in Paris," explored the genesis of the scandalous relationship while Jefferson was ambassador to France. According to Pendleton, his play differs from these other works in the way it is grounded in the history of the time.

"Rite of Passage" is set in 1801, one of Jefferson's most contentious years as president. He was being blamed for a slave rebellion in Virginia. He had been challenged to a duel by a Charlottesville neighbor who was accusing Jefferson of defaming the man's wife. Most dangerous of all, he was facing the possibility of armed revolt led by his nemesis, Vice President Aaron Burr. "Burr was going around to bars in Washington saying his goal was to throw Jefferson's body into the Potomac and feed him to the fishes," Pendleton says.

To further complicate matters, the president's political enemies were using rumors about his relationship with Hemings to label him a hypocrite and worse. While these charges are still made against Jefferson today, Pendleton says they are unjust. "The evidence is that he had advocated the emancipation of the slaves time and again — introducing many bills into the Virginia legislature." Jefferson was roundly defeated each time. "As a human being, Jefferson had the flaws and weaknesses that all the rest of us have," Pendleton says. "But he was on the forefront of making it possible to make progress. To condemn him for his behavior 200 years ago is ridiculous."

Pendleton hasn't been sitting on his hands waiting for "Rite of Passage" to make it to the stage. He has focused exclusively on writing since retiring from VCU in 1992 after 34 years on the faculty. Ten of his plays have been produced at theaters around the country and, in 1994, he won North Carolina's Thompson Award for a play called "Sanctuary" about America's involvement in El Salvador. John McIlwee, who directed "Sanctuary" at the Thompson Theatre in Raleigh says, "One of Jim's strengths is to put a creative finger on the pulse of a political situation ... and make it human."

What interests Pendleton most about Jefferson is the paradox his relationship with Hemings presents. "You have a man committed to freedom born into a life as a slave owner," Pendleton explains. "It's the process and agony of moral and emotional choice that excites
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