Nine actors stand on a raised platform in a line. Six of them are dressed in ostentatious 18th-century clothing and wigs made of paper. The other three wear more casual clothing inspired by the 18th-century. Behind them are white arched frames, representing mansion windows and doors.
The company of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden, directed by Nataki Garrett. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Wertenbaker Rocks: Reverent Irreverence

5 min read

If you’ve never heard of Timberlake Wertenbaker, you’re in for a treat. As a theater scholar and artist who has read thousands of plays, from classics to new works, I can share that Wertenbaker is my favorite playwright.

In a moment of renewed polarization, Washington, D.C., needs to host smart, complex works on American history and its pluralism, civic plays attuned to gender, race and class that query the contested fault-lines of America’s promise and “legacy.”

Wertenbaker and Maya Roth (2009) Courtesy Photo.
Timberlake Wertenbaker and Maya Roth in conversation during a 2009 residency at Georgetown University. Courtesy Photo. 

Equally, we need plays that engage history with depth, not sound bites or slogans. Based on archival and site-specific research in Virginia, Maryland, and more—and begun when she was Playwright in Residence at Georgetown in 2005-06—Wertenbaker’s kaleidoscopic play fills the brief.

To feature this great major play at Ford’s for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is a coup.

For audiences who don’t know her plays, what they will find most surprising is the wit, scope and creativity with which the play unfolds.

For the past 25 years, Wertenbaker’s plays have called to me. As an artist, as a woman, as an American, as a scholar. I came to her seeking Big Plays that featured significant roles for women, too. (Gratefully, I found they also featured refugees, diversity and “great men.”)

Whatever their focus— history and the complex founding of nations as in Our Country’s Good, feminist re-fashioning of classics such as The Love of the Nightingale, or our rapidly globalizing world as in After Darwin—she writes an exhilarating array of figures in disparate contexts, using wit and depth to help us understand the world. 

The company of Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Always, her plays present plum roles for many actors as audiences will experience to a glorious degree in Jefferson’s Garden. Male and female characters, from diverse cultures and lives, talk back—to each other, to tradition, to us—and they help us to listen on multiple levels. She demonstrates a kind of reverent irreverence for the Great Men of History, connecting their stories to others.

Wertenbaker also conjures what I call civic poetics: She pursues thematic Questions across plays, like What is Justice? What is the nature of Power? How do we honor Self and Community? Who is Silenced? How might we make amends for betrayals, as individuals and societies?

Brilliant, multifaceted, incisive, Timberlake’s plays inspire and hail me in a way that few plays do, connecting profoundly human and societal stakes. Creatively, they connect local and global stories.  

Auspicious for Women’s Voices Theater Festival

When so many plays by women focus on domestic spheres, with small casts, Timberlake’s plays take on the world—constellating past and present. What is perhaps most striking is that Timberlake casts women, men and racially diverse characters in significant complex roles. Hallelujah! (She also famously scripts multiple/dual casting, resisting identity politics and highlighting that any of us might be quite different.) In so doing, Timberlake’s plays engage human complexity—to consider the life of the spirit and the psyche—even as they seriously query societal or civic themes (whether of justice, belonging or identity).   

In a way Timberlake’s plays are an antidote for our time, this era of immediacy when so many in the U.S. have lost the art of sustained inquiry and dialogue, let alone substantive listening and research.… Our democracy needs this kind of artful, moral play, but so too do our spirits and minds. 

Like her most famous play Our Country’s Good, set during the founding of Australia as a British penal colony on Australian lands, Jefferson’s Garden models the plurality of history—and today.  

More on Wertenbaker

Playwright Timberlake Wertebaker at the Ford’s first rehearsal for Jefferson’s Garden. Photo by Carolina Dulcey.

A dual British and American citizen, Timberlake Wertenbaker grew up in the Basque Country of France. One of Britain’s leading playwrights, she’s won the Laurence Olivier Prize for Best Play, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Women Playwrights, and been commissioned by the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Royal Court Theatre, and BBC Radio. She not only has deep roots in early America, which inspired her research at Monticello and of the Underground Railroad when teaching at Georgetown, but also studied at St. John’s, in Annapolis, steeped in Classics and study of primary sources in philosophy, literature and history. All feeds her mature writing on Jefferson’s Garden. In addition to writing original plays, she adapts ancient Greek tragedies and fiction, most recently dramatizing Tolstoy’s War and Peace for radio.

Why is Ford’s the ideal venue?

Because Lincoln’s legacy compels us to engage with both the aspirational and violent strands of America’s founding and multiracial history, to honor the past—and enact our best futures.

Also this stirring, creative play will mean most where it began, historically and as a play… The creation of Jefferson’s Garden has developed over the course of three presidential administrations from its beginnings in 2008, its first production in 2015, and its latest iteration at Ford’s Theatre.

Felicia Curry (left) portrays the role of Susannah in the Ford’s production of Jefferson’s Garden. Pictured here with cast members Maggie Wilder and Kathryn Tkel. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Sitting in the first read for the play by Ford’s (with its glorious cast, directed by Nataki Garrett), I felt profound buzz in the room about how our current context makes the play’s existential and social critiques of the “compromise” on slavery —and racism— all the more potent and vital, not only sowing the seeds for the Civil War, but that are rearing anew today.

Come hear Wertenbaker present a short lecture on The Limits of Freedom, followed by Q&A on stirring historical conscience and imagination, hosted at Georgetown Monday, January 22 at 5:00 p.m. in Gaston Hall. 

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Maya E. Roth holds the Della Rosa Distinguished Professorship at Georgetown, where she founded the Davis Performing Arts Center (and hosted Wertenbaker for their opening season). She specializes in civic poetics, contemporary plays by women, cross-cultural adaptations of classics, and, the plays of Timberlake Wertenbaker, on whom she has published widely, as well as Heather Raffo, for whom she does dramaturgy.

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Maya E. Roth holds the Della Rosa Distinguished Professorship at Georgetown