by Christine Sarkes
The history and truth surrounding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, have been scrutinized, debated and researched extensively over two centuries. Sally & Tom, premiering at the Guthrie Theater through November 6, adds to the canon by offering a powerful and heart-wrenching exploration of the debilitating inhumanity of slavery. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who in 2002 became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, described her play as not a straight historical drama, but “about how the world is made, and how we live in this country.”*
It is especially relevant given current right-wing hysteria over teaching Black American history in schools and that knowledge of the founding fathers is formed largely by White American supremacist perspectives and propaganda. As a play-within-a-play, it also offers often humorous insight into the art of acting/playwriting, as the protagonist, Luce/Sally (Kristen Ariza) refines her play about Sally and Tom while opening night nears. She struggles constantly to balance her authentic voice against the commerciality of “successful” plays in White America.
The production, co-presented with The Public Theater of New York City, finds founding father Thomas Jefferson returning to his Monticello plantation home as his sexual relationship with 14-year-old Sally Hemings, sister of his enslaved valet and chef, James Hemings, begins to unfold. The play suddenly switches to the present, where the cast and crew of “The Pursuit of Happiness” are preparing for invited rehearsals, preview shows and, ultimately, opening night. Ariza, as the playwright, is constantly questioning her writing–‘Does this fit? Is it working? Is it flowing correctly?’–including whether to keep one of the most powerful indictments of slavery in a speech, given by Kwame/James (Amari Cheatom), that I have ever witnessed onstage. Hearing Cheatom’s gut-wrenching and masterful delivery is worth the ticket price alone. Equally powerful is Ariza’s final summation of Sally Hemings’ complex and disturbing love/hate feelings for Jefferson and her position at Monticello.
The present-time play also centers around Luce/Sally and Mike/Tom’s troubled personal relationship, which mirrors in many ways that of the Jefferson-era play. There is a power imbalance between them as Tom controls the purse strings as co-director and as he frustrates Luce/Sally with his constant mansplaining and superficial, virtue-signaling understanding of her experience as Black playwright.
The cast also includes the always delightful Guthrie veteran Sun Mee Chomet as Scout/Polly, Gillian Glasco as Maggie/Mary, Kadeem Ali Harris as Devon/Nathan, Kate Nowlin as Ginger/Patsy, Daniel Petzold as Geoff/Cooper/Carey/Tobias, and Luke Robertson as Mike/Tom. Their story lines offer insight into the world of New York stage theater, acting and the role of slaves in Jefferson’s Monticello. Here the play falters slightly as the present-day characters’ story lines are either too thin or focused on too heavily in a way that seems to add little value to the play. For example, the interactions between Luce and Mike drag on a bit repetitiously, in my opinion, while the sisterly relationship between Maggie and Luce could have been more deeply explored.
Ultimately, this is an impressive premiere that deserves viewing for what it reveals about Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship and for changing forever how I will look at his place in American history.
Sally & Tom by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, through November 6, on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, and sound design by Curtis Craig. Carla Steen is resident dramaturg, and Keely Wolter is vocal coach, with Maija García serving as movement director, Mike Rossmy as fight director, Kelsey Rainwater handling intimacy, Karl Alphonso as stage manager, and Olivia Louise Tree Plath as assistant stage manager.
Single tickets start at $20 for preview performances (October 1–6). All other performances range from $31 to $80. Single and group tickets are on sale now through the Box Office at 612.377.2224 (single), 1.877.447.8243 (toll-free), 612.225.6244 (group), or online at guthrietheater.org. Accessibility services (ASL-interpreted, audio-described and open-captioned performances) are available on select dates. For up-to-date information about the theater’s health and safety policies, visit www.guthrietheater.org/health.
*NYT, Michael Paulson, October 5, 2022