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Sally and Tom

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Sheria Irving, Gabriel Ebert (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sally and Tom

By Julia Polinsky

The powerhouse that is Suzan Lori Parks has partnered with the Public Theater and director Steve H. Broadnax III to give us Sally and Tom. But this time, is Parks' work about the history of American skin color politics, or about cutting a white icon down to size by revealing his weaknesses, or putting on theater, with all that entails nowadays? Or even about writing itself?

All of the above. Beautifully written, and oh, what performances! Sheria Irving is marvelous as Luce, the playwright of The Pursuit of Happiness, an off-off-off Broadway play about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. Jefferson is played by Mike (Gabriel Ebert), Luce's life partner as well as the director of The Pursuit of Happiness. As the press release says, what could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything, which makes for an entertaining, enlightening two and a half hours in the theater. Not that it's funny - although it can be - but ouch-funny as well as ha-ha funny. Sally and Tom mixes in laughs with the rage. 

Sally and Tom often feels like Parks wanted to write great speeches and cobbled a Venn diagram of a play around them, blending modern and historic circles of American history with Sally and Tom/Luce and Mike in the center. Parks is also writing about writing, and what it is to be held captive by the work itself and the realities of getting it produced. But that writerly self-reflection can be boring, so she wraps it up in a backstage farce with teeth. 

Sure, there's a plot (or two) crowded with incident, both in the play within the play and in the modern-day portions. Career choices, romantic issues, selling out, infidelity, fertility, funding, hooking up and breaking up: the funhouse mirror of human relationships, past and present overlap all through Sally and Tom

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Sheria Irving, Gabriel Ebert (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A way-off Broadway company, Good Company, is rehearsing a new play, The Pursuit of Happiness. Known for politically conscious, "finger-waggy" theater with titles like Listen Up, Whitey, Cause It's All Your Fault, Good Company has proudly had audiences running for the exits. 

The ensemble features the nearly-famous (Alano Miller stands out as Kwame/James), not-famous, and wannabes. Good Company are White people, Black people, and one Korean-American, who asks what may be the most challenging question in theater these days: "...should only the people who were, or are, the people, play the people?"

The unseen "real" producer who comes up with notes, rejects the title E Pluribus Unum, arranges financing, and makes creative demands: at one point, he walks away from Good Company. He's done with the play's icon-destroying finger wagging. Icon destroying? You bet. Jefferson comes off as a coward and a bully, unreliable, opportunistic, and untruthful; the enslaved people are resilient, not docile; enraged, not quiet. 

Some of the show's better moments come when Jefferson, his enslaved valet, James, and Sally speak soliloquies, telling uncomfortable truths in compelling language and killer performances.

Jefferson, says, "I'm Thomas Jefferson. ...  I stand at the intersection of the horrible and the splendid and the dizzy-making contradiction that is all of us: man, woman, other; black, white, brown, red, yellow, other; old, young, other; rich poor, other, foreign, native, other; good, bad, other; slave, free, other. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one."

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Gabriel Ebert, Sheria Irving, Alano Miller (Photo: Joan Marcus)

James's enraged speech, which is cut at the last minute, is the voice of the enslaved: "...the likes of me have forgotten how much we hate you. Truly. Hate. Because we've got to forget the hate just to get through the blessed day..."

In Sally's soliloquy, she talks of love and choice: "I didn't love him, and I did... What choices did I really have? To what extent was I complicit? I could have run away. I want to push his hands off. Tear away whatever of myself makes him want me. And yet, the horror of him wanting me keeps me from other horrors. Some might say we were docile. I say we were resilient."

Scenic design from Riccardo Hernandez handily uses a stage with black-white blended mottled walls with E PLURIBUS UNUM hidden in huge letters against the back wall, looking like maybe it's just a trick of the light. Until the light comes up clearly on it in Alan C. Edwards' clever lighting design and we cannot miss the message: out of many, one. Like theater companies. And American citizens.

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Leland Fowler, Daniel Petzold (Photo: Joan Marcus)


The back wall does additional duty when it opens to display the names of enslaved on "the list," those who Jefferson sent away when he left Monticello. Early in Act 2, two cast members talk about a design idea: if they'd had the budget, the back walls of the set could have been the pages from  he book where Jefferson wrote the names of his enslaved people. "... and I'd light the hell out of it... So that, at the end of the show, we'd see: THE NAMES OF ALL THE PEOPLE!"

At the end of the play, that wall appears, covered in those names; it lands hard, and makes Sally and Tom unmissable theater. 

Sally and Tom

At the Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street

2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission

Through May 26