“Sally & Tom” is a tale about racism and expedience

Leland Fowler and Daniel Petzold are sitting on a park bench
Leland Fowler and Daniel Petzold in the New York premiere of Sally & Tom, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at The Public Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Gabriel Ebert, Sheria Irving, and Alano Miller on stage wearing victorian outfits.
Gabriel Ebert, Sheria Irving, and Alano Miller in the New York premiere of Sally & Tom, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at The Public Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) offers her latest work, Sally & Tom, at New York’s legendary Public Theater. It makes use of the convention of a play within a play to question, when it comes to race, love, and ambition, whether things have changed much from the founding of our country to today.

Sally & Tom looks at a struggling theatre troupe, Good Company, as they attempt to mount a new play, The Pursuit of Happiness. Their new play is about one of America’s golden boys, Thomas Jefferson (Gabriel Ebert), and his later-in-life relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (Sheria Irving). Complicating matters is that Sally is played by the show’s playwright, Luce; Jefferson is played by the show’s director, Mike; and the two of them are lovers. While Luce is struggling to keep intact much of her social-revolutionary script, Mike is under pressure from the show’s unseen producer to tone down Luce’s language and give a happy ending to her play. The mounting pressures on Mike and Luce create rifts in their relationship and, as the work nears its opening night, increase tensions among the rest of the troupe’s members.

The entire cast, under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, works wonders playing both members of Good Company and characters in The Pursuit of Happiness, especially when making split-second shifts between their two personas in rehearsal scenes. While Ebert and Irving carry much of the acting load, Parks has written enough solid situations and motivations to give the rest of the company many chances to shine. Kristolyn Lloyd as house slave Mary Hemings / actress Maggie is acerbically loving and wildly revenge-minded, especially when paired with Leland Fowler as Mary’s musician husband Nathan / actor Devon, while Alano Miller is proudly powerful as valet James Hemings / actor Kwame.

Comic relief is provided by Sun Mee Chomet as Jefferson’s younger daughter Polly / stage manager Scout, Kate Nowlin as Jefferson’s older daughter Patsy / actress Ginger, and especially Daniel Petzold as Geoff, a sweetly goofy actor who plays, as he puts it, “everybody else”— neighboring plantation owner Colonel Carey, slave overseer Mr. Tobias, and President Washington’s messenger Cooper — along with being the troupe’s costumer and stage carpenter.

Riccardo Hernández’ fluid stage design easily moves between the troupe’s stage and backstage areas and Mike and Luce’s apartment, enhanced by the lighting design of Alan C. Edwards. Edgar Godineaux choreographs a brilliant opening gavotte that depicts the whirling, interlocked family circles inside the Jefferson home, set to music by playwright Parks and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier.

Sally & Tom draws parallels between the relationship of Sally and Jefferson and that of Luce and Mike. Parks connects Jefferson’s hypocrisy in being a slave-owner who proclaims the equality and freedom of all people to Mike’s desire, after years of struggle, to have a commercial success by toning down the social relevance on which Good Company was founded.

The ending of Sally & Tom is as ambiguous as that of The Pursuit of Happiness, and the audiences of both are left to draw their own conclusions. Sally & Tom is not for everyone’s taste, but it is a bittersweet play by a major playwright, and as such deserves our attention. For the adventurous, I recommend seeing the Public Theater’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Sally & Tom.

Sally & Tom is presented in Martinson Hall at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in New York, through May 26th. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to publictheater.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.