By Lauren Zeugner
SYRACUSE — Renowned Jefferson re-enactor J.D. Sutton will present “An Encounter with Thomas Jefferson” at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26, in the Wawasee High School Auditorium. The performance is free to the public.
The encounter is set in 1821, at a time when Jefferson is still busy but also looking back on his life, reflecting on his “services” to the country.
In a phone interview, Sutton explained Jefferson’s “services,” which he had engraved on his tombstone, were the writing of the Declaration of Independence, writing the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and the establishment of the University of Virginia.
Sutton explained the University of Virginia was the first university in the U.S. not affiliated with a church. Students could attend to study for as long or short a time period as they wanted. It was the first public university in the United States “and it was an experiment,” Sutton said.
“The premise (of the show) is I have invited friends to discuss some stuff. What the premise of the Declaration was. … In education, Jefferson has a scheme where everyone can receive a public education and it would be free,” Sutton said.
Noting many of Jefferson’s accomplishments in a wide range of fields, Sutton said, “He was a genius. There are people who refer to him as America’s ‘Leonardo,’” referring to Leonardo Da Vinci.
Sutton credits his wife for the idea of doing a show as Jefferson. It came after a visit to Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, in 1993. That year was the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. After their tour of Monticello, Sutton and his wife were chatting about their visit and that Sutton should do a play about Jefferson while traveling to his sister’s home in Philadelphia. The result was “Twilight at Monticello”, where Sutton played Jefferson.
Since then several versions of the play have evolved. Sutton credits a lawyer friend for suggesting he put together a version that focused on Jefferson’s services, the three things Jefferson wanted to be remembered for.
In rewriting the script, Sutton said he’d received “some great input from audiences about what had been of greatest interest to them.”
The play is also unique in that Sutton as Jefferson does a question-and-answer session. “Remember, I’ve (as Jefferson) have invited friends over,” he said.
Then if time allows there is a “talk-back” with the audience where audience members may ask Sutton anything that wasn’t covered in the play.
Sutton said occasionally an audience member forgets the play is set in 1821 and will ask Jefferson a contemporary question which he has to evade or answer as best he can. Sutton said he’s received some interesting questions during performances.
One little boy asked what his favorite wine was. A little girl asked him to describe Paris to her. “No one had ever asked that. I was in heaven,” he said.
With Jefferson, the subject of slavery always comes up. Sutton said Jefferson had a complicated view of slavery. When he turned 21 he inherited slaves, yet thought it was wrong. “At the same time he moved slaves around where they would be useful,” Sutton said. As an example, he spoke of how one slave with whom Jefferson grew up was moved from being Jefferson’s valet to overseeing one of his plantations, while that slave’s wife was a cook in the White House. Sutton said he believed Jefferson ran his plantations as corporations.
After Sutton’s performance, the audience will be invited to join Chautauqua-Wawasee on the lawn at Oakwood Resort for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Patriotic Pops concert. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and be sure to stop by the Chautauqua-Wawasee tent to receive a free patriotic gift.