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  • Jonathan Kalb

Holes in the Hole

When I first heard that Suzan-Lori Parks had taken up the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, it occurred to me that it fit her sensibility to a T. This is the author, after all, who spun not one but two fine dramas out of the disturbing spectacle of a Black man re-enacting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in an arcade, and spun another out of the actual exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman with unusually large buttocks outrageously paraded as a sideshow act and medical curiosity in 19th-century England. Our revered third president had a 36-year sexual relationship with an enslaved woman who bore him 6 children. Hemings could have seized her freedom when they were together in France but didn’t, and was evidently his main intimate partner for the nearly four decades following his wife’s death, yet he never freed her (though he did free their kids). How to think about love, affection, rape, coercion, and desire in such a circumstance? Who better than Parks to ponder those vexing questions and turn them into illuminating art?

For all its promise, though, Parks’s Sally & Tom is a bit of a let-down for me. Parts of it are as provocative and complicated as the other plays just mentioned—The America Play, Topdog/Underdog, and Venus—but something about this long work (2 hours 40 minutes) feels critically unsettled in shape and attitude, even incomplete. It is curiously equivocal about the very creative act that has long distinguished Parks as a playwright: her talent for inventing fantastical, historically charged otherworlds where the most outrageous events can be imaginatively probed, sifted and debated on multiple levels. That vision has made her our premier theatrical explorer of holes and voids in our collective past. Yet here she writes as if she had second thoughts about her subject, shrinking back from a full exploration of the hole that seized her interest.

Sally & Tom couches the Jefferson-Hemings story as a play within a play. Good Company, a fictional “low-budget-no-budget” theater known for sharp-edged, anti-establishment political work, is presenting this drama, The Pursuit of Happiness, as part of an effort to go mainstream. The leaders are a couple: Mike, the white director who also acts Jefferson (“This show is going to make us”), and Luce, the Black playwright who also acts Hemings (“Or this show is going to break us”). The cast is a peppy, diverse bunch that multitasks all the crew jobs, and the chief backer is a never-seen rich guy named Teddy who quits when Luce refuses to cut a provocative speech or promise a happy ending. The main complication is the tension that develops between Mike and Luce, over values, selling out, representation, and more (she also discovers she’s pregnant), which parallels the uncountable unresolved tensions between Sally and Tom.

We never see the bulk of Luce’s play, only select scenes that frame disturbing questions about the great man and sketch out pieces of plot. We learn, for instance, that Jefferson has just returned to Monticello after 3 years in France, accompanied by his white daughters as well as Sally and her brother James (a valet and chef). The affair with Sally began in Paris when she was 14 and Tom was 41. Jefferson promised James freedom there and is now backpedaling, and all Monticello’s enslaved people are worried they’ll be leased out to far-flung owners when the master leaves for New York to serve in Washington’s government. “TJ” is drawn by Luce as well-meaning but also selectively blind: financially inept, condescending to his daughters (who are jealous of Sally), and indifferent to the feelings of all his enslaved people not kin to Sally.

Overlaid on all this are multiple subplots in the acting company. The vain, almost famous actor Kwame who plays James, for instance, who is Luce’s ex, quits after Luce cuts his over-the-top, anachronistic protest speech (finally agreeing with Teddy that it’s “too woke”). Two other actors, Geoff who also does sets and clothes and Devon who also does music, lights and sound, flirt and hook up while discussing an alternative design idea for the play. And Scout, an Asian woman doing props and stage managing, is thrilled to be in the cast but also nervous about identity issues (“You think there were any Korean-Americans in America in 1790?”) and whether their audience will “get it.” The play never comes close to tying up all these threads. Nor could I ever discern exactly what parallel Parks meant to draw between slavery and the plucky multi-tasking of this theater company.

I did admire every real actor in Steve H. Broadnax III’s crisp production. Alano Miller’s brittley cocky Kwame/James is hunkily delightful, and Sun Me Chomet’s amusingly pert Scout made me giggle more than once with her sunshine-through-the-clouds bonhomie. Sheria Irving also plays a richly enigmatic Luce/Sally, soulful yet also shrewdly modulated in all her emotional reactions, as if to protect both women’s few secure advantages in their differently dangerous worlds. Interestingly, Irving bears a resemblance to the young Suzan-Lori Parks (including similar facial expressions), which adds a fascinating meta-dimension to her mystery.

For all its theatrical force and length, though, the show feels sketchy. The Pursuit of Happiness is little more than an outline, and Luce isn’t even sure how to finish it. I was left with the impression that Parks considered a more elaborately imagined Jefferson-Hemings drama and then possibly abandoned it. As things stand, the emotional peaks of Sally & Tom are all situated outside both Luce’s play and the acting company story. They’re in three lengthy monologues by each of the main characters.

The first is that barnstorming “woke” speech by James, which Luce cuts after we see it in rehearsal. It sounds like a righteously indignant tirade that gushed impulsively out of Parks while she was researching:


All them pretty words you write, Mr. Jefferson, they’re all lies! You’ll soon be ashamed by the lies that this country was built on, Mr. Jefferson! Ashamed by the lies on which we were founded, and on which we were fed, and on which we grew fat!


The second is a direct address to the audience by Jefferson at the end of Act 1. He suddenly steps forward, summarizes many of the unflattering facts historians have verified about him and Hemings, and then sasses:


Hate on me. Go ahead. I’m Thomas Jefferson. My face is on Mount Rushmore. I am the Man. Love me. Hate me. Go ahead. 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. And here I am.


The third is a direct address by Sally at the end of Act 2. She steps forward, tells us a bit more about what she really thinks than she already has, and then muses on possible spaces for freedom in an imperfect world:


What are any of us at the end of the day but people who make choices? And what do we expect from love? And what is freedom anyway? And what will History say of us? We are making the best of things. At the end of the day that’s what we all do, isn’t it? As my mother did before me, as my children and their children will do after me. We all will make the best of things. (rest) You’re waiting for me to tell you if I loved him or not. It was both. A mixture. Like me. And just like everything else. (rest) All these things I’m remembering. I cast the burden and I set myself free.


These are sensational and touching acting coups. But they’re also all essentially stand-alone, commentary-like speeches that could function as set-pieces independent of the larger show. That is a remarkable formal statement from an author who always insists that form is content. Are these passages fugitive tear-sheets from a play that refused to be written? Three characters in search of an author? Ghosts from a historical hole that Parks never quite managed to dig them out of?

I can understand the frustration of any author trying to make shapely fiction out of the Hemings-Jefferson story. The records just aren’t there to fuel historical or psychological exploration of Sally beyond a certain point, so some equivocal take on her is inevitable for anyone seeking to understand this relationship. Still, some remarkable facts do exist that Parks chose not to use, such as that Sally and Tom’s beloved dead wife probably bore some resemblance because they were half-sisters, sharing the same white father (there are no images of Sally), or that 16-year-old Sally successfully negotiated with the United States’s first Minister to France to guarantee conditions of her favorable treatment if she agreed to return to Virginia with him.

In deeply fantastical plays like The America Play and Venus, this sort of exhaustive use of available facts didn’t matter at all. But in a predominantly realistic play like Sally & Tom, it matters a great deal, because the play invites us to entertain every possible “what if?” and “what about?” along with the author. That, I suspect, is one reason why Sally & Tom left me hungry when so many other Parks plays have felt like feasts.

Photos: Joan Marcus

By Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III

Public Theater

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