"Beautiful friction" is how black American director Nataki Garrett describes her collaboration with white British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. Their subject is fraught: Thomas Jefferson.

"That hypocrite," Garrett says, summing up the American knee-jerk reaction to the Founding Father these days. "More recently, that rapist ."

"A playwright doesn't like nice people," says Wertenbaker. "We like complicated people, their abilities and failures."

The failure of America is the subject of "Jefferson's Garden," which is getting its U.S. debut at Ford's Theatre as part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival. A modern chorus provides perspective as Wertenbaker imagines the story of an idealistic young man who travels to meet Jefferson and falls in love with a slave.

"They had to make a devil's pact to keep America together," Wertenbaker says of the Founding Fathers. "That's what the play follows, and the consequences of that compromise — that betrayal of America."

Wertenbaker, 61, recently dubbed "the doyenne of political theater of the 1980s and 1990s" by London's Financial Times, began "Jefferson's Garden" during the Obama administration and premiered it three years ago in Britain. The play's focus on freedom and violent action has hardly lost currency since.

"Charlottesville is a very pointed decision to make, to march there, in particular," Garrett says of last summer's deadly protests around the University of Virginia campus that Jefferson founded. "It says, 'We're marching for what we believe is our legacy.' And they" — Garrett means the hard-right supremacists carrying tiki torches — "didn't pull that legacy out of thin air. They believed they could locate that legacy within the writings of the people we're representing on our stage."

Garrett has been mentioned as a likely candidate for some of the many artistic director jobs open across the country, including D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth, where she is a company member and directed Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's race-conscious "An Octoroon" to acclaim. Now in her mid-40s, Garrett feels she's "as ready as you can be" to run a theater. "That's part of what I've been doing the past 11 years."


Wertenbaker's 1988 hit "Our Country's Good" — about culture, crime and punishment as convicts in an 1787 Australian penal colony put on a play — is a drama curriculum staple that got an epic revival recently at London's National Theatre. What's kept her keen to write, she says, is "these questions when there seems to be some sort of orthodoxy. Then the rebel in me goes berserk, and I start pawing at it. I like the area where the questions are, and the ambiguities of political life, rather than the certainties."

Ford's producing director, Paul Tetreault, was considering "Jefferson's Garden" much earlier than 2016's presidential election.

"The question of freedom and violence stays the same," Wertenbaker says. "Paul called me after the election and said, 'I really liked the play before. But now we really need it.' "

Jefferson's Garden, by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Through Feb. 11 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets: $25-$62. Call 888-616-0270 or visit fords.org.