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Clyde Ensslin’s journey to the Capital Fringe Festival began, of all places, in an Uber. Ensslin has driven for the rideshare company since 2014, and one night in the fall of that year he received a message to pick up a passenger at the bar Showtime in Bloomingdale. That passenger turned out to be Capital Fringe CEO Julianne Brienza.
As they rode, she told him she’d just closed on Fringe’s new headquarters on Florida Avenue NE. When Ensslin revealed he had never heard of the arts festival, Brienza gave him a crash course in the world of Fringe, from its roots in Edinburgh to her plans to build Trinidad into an arts district. “She just kind of blew me away,” he says of his first impression. She encouraged him to see shows when the festival returned in the summer. He bought an eight-pack of tickets.
“At the time, I did not think this was anything I’d want to do,” he says now. But after seeing pieces he loved, like Cara Gabriel’s I Am the Gentry, he bought another eight-pack the following year. By the end of the 2016 festival, he was hooked. At the same time, Ensslin’s passengers were regularly telling him how much he sounds like former president Bill Clinton, so he started thinking about constructing a play that would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 42nd president’s impropriety and subsequent impeachment.
Ensslin is no stranger to the arts—he was the arts editor of the Daily Tar Heel while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and makes a habit of seeing a wide variety of theater around town. In addition to that, he hosts a weekly radio show, “Ride with Clyde the DJ Driver,” on Takoma Park’s WOWD FM, during which he plays songs suggested and recommended to him by his passengers. But before creating his own Fringe show, he’d never written or performed an original piece.
Early on in the process, he discussed his plans with Ibe Crawley, the operator of IBe’ Arts, a small gallery in Historic Anacostia, who pushed him to not focus directly on Bill and Monica and instead tell the story of another lecherous commander-in-chief: Thomas Jefferson. The resulting play, a monologue called Thomas Jefferson: Hoochie-Coochie Man, is presented as a college lecture, taught by professor William Jefferson Clinton, that breaks down the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the ways that story has evolved over time.
To begin his research, Ensslin consulted the authoritative text on the subject, historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Gordon-Reed tells the stories of multiple generations of the Hemings family, who became Jefferson’s property when he inherited them from his father-in-law. She chronicles the hard labor they did on his plantation and follows members of the family after they were freed upon Jefferson’s death. After hearing her speak at the 2016 National Book Festival, Ensslin dove deeper into the historiographical archives, reading Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America and titles by Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. as he tried to understand the paradox that Jefferson occupies in American history.
Ensslin’s show arrives at a time of renewed interest in Jeffersonian scholarship. After DNA evidence conclusively proved Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemings, historians and curators were forced to deal with that aspect of Jefferson’s life for the first time. A large donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein in 2013 allowed curators at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to build replicas of the cabins slaves lived in on the plantation. Visitors can now go on tours that specifically highlight the experiences of slaves and the Hemings family. But even Hamilton, every woke theater nerd’s guide to early American history, paints Jefferson as a politically savvy bon vivant, only mentioning Sally in a winking reference for history buffs.
Ensslin regularly found articles that mischaracterized Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings in his research, citing a Teen Vogue article correcting a Washington Post story that referred to her as his mistress, not an enslaved young woman. More than 200 years of history and 39 presidential administrations separate Hemings and Monica Lewinsky, but as Americans learn more about them, it’s clear that their stories share similarities, something Ensslin hopes audiences will recognize during his show.
“As the story is now told by women, it becomes more accurate,” Ensslin says. “The men tried real hard back in the ‘60s and even in the ‘50s to make sure that that would never happen. That’s part of the story too.” Over the course of 75 minutes, he’ll provide audiences with a crash course in the unsavory details about Jefferson that aren’t shared in history books, like the fact that two of Jefferson and Hemings’ children passed as white after being freed, and that, as best as anyone can tell, Hemings’ remains are buried under what is now a Hampton Inn on West Main Street in Charlottesville.
The second part of the show’s title becomes relevant when the fictional Professor Clinton touches on the impact of the blues, a traditionally black genre that, over time, has been co-opted by white men, including Clinton. Muddy Waters’ predatory lyrics on “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’m gonna mess with you/ I’m gonna make you girls/ Lead me by my hand/ Then the world’ll know/ The hoochie-coochie man,” both describe and react to the actions of a powerful slaveholder. Waters was instrumental in creating modern Chicago blues, but at the same time he might not have left his Mississippi plantation had Alan Lomax not traveled to record blues musicians in the early 1940s on behalf of the Library of Congress. That institution, by the way, would not exist without Thomas Jefferson.
These intersections of seemingly disparate subjects particularly appeal to Ensslin, a guy who first came to D.C. to work for George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign and now takes pride in being part of a nonprofit, non-commercial local radio station. While he might consider turning his stage project into a radio drama in the future, for now he’s content circling the District, interacting with passengers and, of course, picking up new music recommendations along the way.
July 6, 8, 13, 15, 18, and 22. Pursuit Wine Bar, 1421 H St. NE. $17. capitalfringe.org.