Sally & Tom ****

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert.

By: David Sheward

April 23, 2024: After examining the reverberations of the Lincoln assassination in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks returns to American history to focus on its impact across racial and generational lines. In Sally & Tom, her clever play-within-a-play now at the Public Theater, Parks takes on the enigmatic relationship between Sally Hemmings and the man who enslaved and perhaps loved her, Thomas Jefferson. Hemmings became the future third President’s mistress when she was only 14 and he was 40. Was their union a form of rape since he had all the power or did she have romantic feelings for him despite the imbalance of their positions? 

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert.

To add an extra layer of tension and depth, Parks casts the Hemmings-Jefferson story as a play performed by a struggling modern Off-Off-Broadway theater group called Good Company. The script is written by African-American leading lady Luce who is married to the company’s white co-founder Mike, simultaneously directing the show and playing Jefferson. Unlike her earlier history plays which resembled weird dreamscapes, Sally & Tom is accessible and funny. Like America Play and Topdog, this new work is complex, smart, and rewarding for those you are willing to look and listen closely. 

The central action of both the contemporary theater plot and the historic inner drama are rife with conflict. In 2024, Luce and Mike’s tiny company is dependent on the whims of their rich backer who wants Luce to tone down her work’s “woke” aspects, specifically a fiery speech by Sally’s brother, articulating his rage against Jefferson’s hypocritical oppression. In 1790, Jefferson has just returned from France and has been called to serve in the newly-formed American government as the first Secretary of State. To maintain his expansive Monticello household and pay off debts while he is away in the new capitol of New York City, he must sell or lease out much of his “human property” including members of Sally’s family. In both settings, Parks sets up the clash between practicality and lofty ideals (artistic freedom in the modern story, actual freedom in the post-colonial one).

Gabariel Ebert, Sheria Irving, and Alano Miller.

There are even more parallels and echoes between the two plotlines. Both Sally and Luce are pregnant. The company’s fortunes are at stake as is the future of Monticello. Sally’s brother, James is played by Kwame, a rising star with a growing fan base for his film and TV work. James was promised freedom by Jefferson when they were in Paris and chafes under his enslaver’s unfulfilled vow. Kwame also bristles at restrictions on his art with his big speech on the chopping block. Cast members Maggie, Scout, Devon and Geoff also have their issues, paralleling those of their characters.

Parks and director Steve H. Broadnax III skillfully weave all these threads together in a stunning historical, theatrical tapestry depicting our national reckoning with the horrors of slavery. Dramatic moments are cheek by jowl with humorous ones and all are grounded in reality. In addition to James’ intense monologue, both Sally and Tom have lengthly speeches addressed directed to the audience (with the house lights up) which reveal the complexities of their places in history. 

The company of Sally & Tom.

Sheria Irving captures both Sally and Luce’s ambivalence towards their respective lovers and their striving to maintain dignity under condescending pressure. Gabriel Ebert reveals Mike and Tom’s ambition to do the right thing and the character flaws which bring them up short. Alano Miller is powerful as Kwame and James. Sun Mee Chomet is endearing as the stage manager Scout who discovers her love of acting. Kristolyn Lloyd provides steely support as Maggie, Luce’s confidant in the company, and Mary, Sally’s sister. Kate Nowlin delivers a shaded performance as Patsy, Jefferson’s daughter who expresses jealousy of Sally, and Ginger, the ambitious actress playing her. Daniel Petzold and Leland Fowler convey the tenderness and trepidation of two gay company members who haltingly make to their way to each other.

Riccardo Hernandez’s suggestive set believably conveys the dual time periods with a few simple pieces as does Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, particularly in a moving final moment (No spoilers, but it is stunning.) Rodrigo Munoz’s costumes are also appropriate and character-defining.

There is a movement to suppress any aspects of our history that might make white people uncomfortable. Insightful art like Sally & Tom is vital to the necessary act of reconciliation and examination of America’s past. Parks poses many important questions—Was Jefferson a hero or a villain? Was Sally complacent or a victim? She offers no answers and leave the final verdict to us.

Sally & Tom ****
Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. NYC.
Running time: two hours and 40 mins. including intermission.
April 16—May 26
Photography: Joan Marcus