Reviews

Sally and Tom ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

May 1, 2024: Sally & Tom, Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play at the Public Theater, is a conceptually challenging, historically pertinent, and sociologically woke exploration of the three-decade relationship of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, and Sally Hemings. She was the quadroon slave widely—although not unanimously—believed to have been his lover (years after his wife, Martha, died in 1782) and the mother of six of his children. 

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

May 1, 2024: Sally & Tom, Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play at the Public Theater, is a conceptually challenging, historically pertinent, and sociologically woke exploration of the three-decade relationship of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, and Sally Hemings. She was the quadroon slave widely—although not unanimously—believed to have been his lover (years after his wife, Martha, died in 1782) and the mother of six of his children. 

Although there’s a definite comic flair to much of it, especially in its satirical handling of Jefferson, it is more serious, both in content and style, than Oh, Mary!,another current Off-Broadway play, which also touches on a former president, Abraham Lincoln, and his relation to slavery. Parks herself, of course, one of our most perceptive chroniclers of American racial history, won a Pulitzer Prize for Top Dog/Underdog,her unusual two-hander referencing the 15th president.

 Gabriel Ebert, Sheria Irving, and Alano Miller.

In Sally & Tom, Parks tells the story of the eponymous persons, when—after three years abroad, where he was American Minister to France—they returned to his Virginia plantation at Monticello in 1790. Because France had outlawed slavery, she became Tom’s paid employee, but resumed her former status upon their return to America. What followed is performed as The Pursuit of Happiness, a play-within-a-play, the outer play being about an Off-Broadway theatre group, the Good Company, known for its politically radical (like something called Patriarchy on Parade), but poorly attended productions. 

In The Pursuit of Happiness Jefferson is played by the director, Mike (Gabriel Ebert), and Sally by the playwright, Luce (Sheria Irving). The show is in its final dress rehearsal before its first and only preview prior to opening, but there is still dissension about a few things, especially the ending and a lengthy, fiery, antislavery diatribe, replete with a Black power salute, directed at Jefferson and a slave buyer named Tobias (Daniel Petzold) by Sally’s brother, James (Alano Miller), Jefferson’s chef/valet.

 Leland Fowler and Kristolyn Lloyd.

The unseen producer, Teddy, wants the speech cut or he’ll withdraw his funding, but Kwame a.k.a. K-Dubb, the proto-celebrity actor playing James, who’s gaining a name for his film performances, fiercely resists; he also happens to be Luce’s ex-lover. Even Luce appears to realize why the speech is problematic, and gives a perfectly reasonable explanation of why it should go, although the physical business that replaces it is equally questionable. 

Meanwhile, the offstage affair between the white Mike and the Black Luce—mirroring that of Tom and Sally, who, like Luce is pregnant, and whose actual love the play questions—stumbles. Things go especially sour when Mike, seeking funding, makes a fateful decision involving another woman to gain it. 

Parks presents a picture of an indie theatre company struggling with its artistic and political goals under the pressure of financial need, with each of the eight actors playing both a member of the play within the play’s cast and someone responsible for some technical or artistic feature; everyone—aside from Daniel Petzold, who plays five roles—has two names, one for their play-within-the-play character and one for their company member character. 

Kate Nowlin, Sheria Irving, and Sun Mee Chomet.

Shade is cast on Jefferson’s historical position as the writer of the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, it says—when we see his slave-owning propensities and broken promises. Unable to unburden himself from ruinous debt, he failed (unlike Ben Franklin and George Washington) to free the hundreds of human beings in his possession. The income derived from their labor helped pay the bills. 

Sally herself, half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife and with whom his affair began when she was only 14, remained enslaved after his death in 1826. The liberal Mike, playing him, admits how difficult it is to portray this founding father whose face is carved on Mount Rushmore. As per the playwright’s approach, which permits long monologues—like the one cut from James’s part—to explicate the socio-political background, Jefferson gets his, and it’s a doozy. (Sally has hers, as well.)

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Eber.

Parks, while examining the ramifications of Jefferson’s slave-owning history, also enjoys satirizing the stressful business of putting on a play. The latter, somewhat in the manner of Noises Off, moves briskly under the spirited direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, but it’s not memorably funny, even with such self-referential conventions as having an actor named Geoff (Petzold) walk by periodically with handwritten signs announcing things like “Invited Dress Rehearsal tonight! And 2 more days till opening!” 

And despite the camaraderie the company strives to conjure among its disparate talents, it’s hard to reconcile the troupe’s acceptance of Kwame when, after leaving them in the lurch, he returns with flowers to wish them luck on their opening. It doesn’t work like that in the real world.

 Leland Fowler and Daniel Petzold.

Sally & Tom is attractively produced in proscenium style on the Public’s Martinson Hall stage, with an open set designed by Riccardo Hernández surrounded by classical columns and a garden-like upstage area. The blend of period and modern costumes is the fine work of Rodrigo Muñoz, although it’s unlikely such a strapped company could afford the period garments. Alan C. Edwards supplies the appropriate lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier the occasional music.  

The performances are all effective, Ebert, Irving, and Miller being notably excellent, and the play offers a suitably theatrical way to present the story of Sally and Tom while commenting on it.  It is, though, at a little more than two and half hours, longer than the material demands, and it can’t help falling into the trap of didacticism now and then. 

Sally & Tom, like everything Parks writes, is both entertaining and enlightening. It has its longueurs, especially in Act One, but for those with an interest in American history, especially when related to issues of slavery, it should be essential viewing.

Sally & Tom ***1/2
Public Theater/Martinson Hall
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through May 12, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus

 Sheria Irving, Alano Miller, Daniel Petzold, Gabriel Ebert, Leland Fowler, and Kristolyn Lloyd.