Monday, April 22, 2024

Sally & Tom (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The prolific Suzan-Lori Parks’ latest play (a “dramedy” about “art, politics, and the contradictions that make all of us” (according to the press notes) charts the fascinating and enigmatic relationship of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, a union that produced six children. But rather than giving us a straight-forward historical narrative, Parks has framed the story as a play called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” as it is being rehearsed by a low-budget acting troupe called Good Company, while preparing for the first performance.

The actors in the troupe grapple with the issues in the play and, in some instances, mirror them. Thus, the play simultaneously explores the mythology of Sally and Tom, and the ethos of making theater.

All of the scrappy Good Company actors wear multiple hats in mounting the production. Leading lady Luce (Sheria Irving), for instance, is also the playwright, and her boyfriend Mike (Gabriel Ebert) is not only the play’s director but also has the Jefferson role. Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (Kate Nowlin) is taken by the company’s dramaturg and choreographer; while daughter Polly (Sun Mee Chomet) happens to be the stage manager. And so on.

The back and forthing of the Sally/Tom and backstage stories could seem a tired device, but both plot lines hold our interest, and one can see the wisdom of that structure so that the present-day characters are allowed to express modern day views on the historical action of 1790 Monticello.

The Jefferson-Hemings relationship was not a love story, Lori-Parks wants us to know, as obviously, Sally was owned by TJ (as the Good Company calls him), though as there was no Known coercion on Jefferson’s part, the true dynamics of that relationship can never really be known. 

The cast, headed by Irving and Ebert, morphs easily between their modern characters and the historical roles. Alano Miller is particularly strong as Sally’s valet brother James whose impassioned stand-up speech to Jefferson becomes a point of contention when the (unseen) producer Teddy sends word that it should be cut. Daniel Petzold as actor Geoff plays several parts in “The Pursuit of Happiness” most skillfully, while offstage, he bonds romantically with Leland Fowler’s Devon. Kristolyn Lloyd is especially good as Luce’s friend Maggie, and Sally’s sister Mary in the play.

Like the aforementioned James Hemings speech, both Sally and Tom have their big monologues, and they are impressively delivered by Irving and Ebert. The latter closes the first act with a defense of his (Tom’s) contradictory character. How can the author of “all men are created equal” own hundreds of slaves? We learn that, unlike George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson chose not to free his slaves, and not even on his deathbed did he free Sally, as was often customarily done. 

And near the end of the second act, Sally herself explains her conflicted feelings about the relationship. Naturally, it’s all supposition on Parks’ part, but Sally’s logic in the speech sounds plausible. Besides which, it’s another theatrical highpoint of the play.

Rodrigo Muñoz’s period costumes -- along with J. Jared Janas & Cassie Williams’ wigs -- are authentically rich, though of course, one can’t help thinking this finery would all be far beyond the means of a troupe such as Good Company. 

Riccardo Hernández’s scenic design creates the expected 18th century ambience, and allows quick transitions to the backstage and other real-life settings. Edgar Godineaux has devised period choreography to some very pretty music composed by Parks herself and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier. 

Steve H. Broadmax III’s direction balances the past/present action smartly, and as indicated above, draws good performances from all. 

I suspect if “Sally & Tom” has an afterlife -- this is its second production after the Guthrie Theater in 2022 -- Parks will refine and perhaps prune it to good advantage. But as it stands now, it’s a most intriguing play by one of our finest playwrights.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street: or 212.967.7555, through June 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert

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