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  • Writer's pictureJanine Sternlieb

First Ladies and The Big White Lie

A Political Play Synopsis

Title of the Play with the logo for First Ladies and The Big White Lie
Logo of First Ladies and The Big White Lie

First Ladies and The Big White Lie

Year after year, the most famous deceased First Ladies knit and play cards while watching events unfold in Washington. But it’s 2016 and Mary Lincoln views a presidential debate with growing alarm about the direction of the country. The others, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison and Patsy Jefferson have no interest in current politics. They are happiest when singing songs from Hamilton and rehashing old grievances. Patsy, the daughter of Jefferson, not his wife, defends the legitimacy of daughters vs. wives, a theme that has particular resonance while Ivanka works in the White House. The final member of their group, Jackie Kennedy, is content to read the many books lining the walls.

Mary’s worst fears, of course, come true, and Trump is elected. While the others urge her to take the long view–after all, he’ll likely be gone in four years–unprecedented events are also happening in their space. Rachel, the wife of Andrew Jackson, who died in 1828, arrives during the inauguration. How can this be when, typically, only recently deceased wives show up? Could it have something to do with Trump hanging a portrait in the Oval Office of Jackson, the controversial populist?

When Rachel challenges the appropriateness of Patsy’s inclusion in their group, Eleanor Roosevelt arrives. At first, she is only seen by Patsy, but Mary “awakens” and witnesses the most famous and lauded First Lady urging Patsy to give up her spot as Jefferson’s representative.

Mary doesn’t understand how Eleanor can be in the room without the others noticing, but she is now very much awake to the discussion of Patsy’s legitimacy. Patsy has always denied her father’s relationship with Sally Hemings and now Mary is ready to investigate the matter. She reads The Hemingses of Monticello and learns that the DNA evidence is clear: Jefferson sired Sally’s children. She challenges Patsy, and the 200 years of historians’ complicity in the lie that denied Sally’s role in Jefferson’s life.

Patsy is a hair’s breadth from admitting her deception, when the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally intrudes. Before Patsy can exit the room, Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, enters. All the Ladies fear this bodes ill for the nation, but only Mary imagines there’s something she can do about it.

In her despair about what Varina’s presence means for the country, she calls for Eleanor’s aid. Eleanor explains the strange relationship between life and afterlife and how Eleanor hasn’t let death stop her from doing her good works. Mary, too, can be of help in saving the nation’s fragile democracy, by getting Patsy to give up her place to Sally Hemings.

To test her new understanding, Mary conjures up a long lost object, showing the others that they can have influence, if they focus their attention. But when they hear the cries of children at the border, the different ideas about how to respond, threaten to tear their community apart.

Varina’s insensitive responses to Covid and the murder of George Floyd threaten Mary’s resolve, but help arrives in the form of Harriet Hemings, Jefferson’s daughter. Patsy is predictably distraught to see Harriet and continues to deny her father’s paternity. But when Varina uses old racist tropes to discredit Harriet, it is Varina–and her husband’s legacy–that suffer most. As Mary reports on the toppling of the Jefferson Davis statue in Richmond, Varina loses her footing, too, and Harriet shows her the door.

Eleanor arrives to influence the outcome of the January 6th insurrection while Patsy, finally, has an honest reckoning with her family’s past. Mary is now ready to leave for her new “life” as a helper. The remaining First Ladies look forward to welcoming Sally to their group. But Sally is in no hurry to join them. Or is she?

Political Play: An Inspiration

By Janine Sternlieb with Lennie Dean

After the catastrophe of Trump’s election, I turned to the story of Jefferson and Sally, and to one of America’s early Big Lies. After Reconstruction, whites perpetuated the myth that black men preyed on white women, when the obvious truth was that white men preyed on black women. Widespread lynching was the result of this terrible falsehood.

About a dozen years ago, I read The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. The hypocrisy in this story is so deep, rich, and vast (over many generations), that it feels like the gift that keeps on giving (dramatically speaking). These elements helped inspire the premise of First Ladies and The Big White Lie.

An example of irony: Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. A very good lawyer. Yet, despite his experience with the law and the numerous threats on his life, he died without a will. That’s an intriguing premise for a play.

Another example: James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina governor, was publicly exposed as a molester of his four nieces. (Remember, Southern white gentlemen were supposed to be defenders of white female honor.) Hammond’s career was, predictably, derailed. But a decade later, in 1857, the state elected him to be their senator. Isn’t truth stranger than fiction?

In 2022, we finally have a federal anti-lynching law. Meanwhile states are busy banning discussions of race in school curricula. You cannot make this s**t up! If you ever got the message that history is boring, you were wildly misinformed.

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