‘Sally & Tom’ Frees Sally Hemings From Being a Mere Footnote

‘Sally & Tom’ Frees Sally Hemings From Being a Mere Footnote

Sally Hemings might be a household name these days, but we still know so little about the relationship between Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Yet, Hemings endures as a figure of endless fascination: American writers aspire to tell her story, and there remains a yearning for a deeper understanding of the enslaved woman who left no firsthand accounts of her inner thoughts.

In “Sally & Tom,” Suzan Lori-Parks is the latest writer trying to fill in the gaps in order to present Hemings as a multidimensional character — and, in the process, rescue her personhood onstage. “We don’t know what happened,” Sheria Irving, who portrays Hemings in the play, told me, adding that Parks is “building on this factual account.” (The play has been a hit for the Public Theater and runs there through June 2.)

She continued: “We do not have to reimagine, we can really imagine what it is for a 14-year-old to be looked at by a 41-year-old, and not just looked at but to engage in sexual exploitation with this man.”

Parks’s fidelity to the history means she doesn’t alter Hemings’s fate. Instead, she experiments with the storytelling by plotting “Sally & Tom” as a backstager, or a play within a play, in which the main character, Luce (also played by Irving), is an African American dramatist who is writing a play about the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. Luce is playing Hemings in her own play, which is called “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

In fact, each cast member plays two parts: Luce’s partner, Mike (Gabriel Ebert), is playing Tom in the production, and Alano Miller plays both Hemings’s older brother, James, and Kwame, a Hollywood actor who has returned to his old theater company. When the historical story and the present-day one collide, they often reveal the sometimes comical and often complicated reality that can arise when mounting a show dealing with race relations in the American theater today.

This doubling allows for Parks’s two-part critique. First, Luce’s focus on Hemings counters those Jefferson historians who have tried to erase her legacy. Also, Luce’s battle to control the ending of her play highlights the pressures that Black playwrights sometimes face in commercial theater: the white gatekeepers, producers and actors, who are less interested in a Black writer’s artistic freedom and more interested in controlling the narrative, claiming it will make the work more palatable to a white audience. (Something that Alice Childress experienced and wrote about.)

While meta-narratives are part of Parks’s avant-garde aesthetic, “Sally & Tom” reminded me of something I had noticed when doing research for my book “Sites of Slavery”: Parks’s new play is part of a canon by Black writers that subverts genre conventions to prioritize Hemings’s life and perspective. By doing so, these authors free Hemings and the other enslaved members of her family from being mere footnotes in Jefferson’s biography.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, after reading a chapter on Hemings in Fawn Brodie’s 1974 psychological study of Thomas Jefferson, decided to write her own novel. Published in 1979 as historical fiction, “Sally Hemings” uses a nonlinear structure that jumps from Hemings and Jefferson’s earliest encounters, in 1787, when a 14-year-old Hemings accompanied the family to Paris to care for Jefferson’s daughters while he was stationed there as a senior minister; to their living together in Albemarle County in Virginia, in the early 19th century; and to her life in Virginia as a free woman after his death. These flashbacks and flash-forwards reveal how Hemings navigated enslavement and emancipation while imagining how she might have evolved into a woman who questioned Jefferson’s authority and secured freedom for their four children who survived to adulthood.

In 1997, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” by the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, took Jefferson’s earlier biographers and historians to task for their insistence that Jefferson’s fathering of his six children with Hemings was improbable, including some who claimed he was celibate for almost four decades, while others attributed parentage to his nephews Peter and Samuel Carr.

Gordon-Reed’s style is akin to a meta-historiography in which she compares these earlier biographies while also, as a former law professor, cross-examining the motives of the Jefferson scholars, their missing evidence, and their deliberate misreadings of firsthand witness accounts of Hemings and Jefferson’s long-term relationship in the published narratives of their son Madison Hemings, and the formerly enslaved Isaac Jefferson.

But it is Robbie McCauley’s play “Sally’s Rape,” which won an Obie Award in 1992, to which Parks’s “Sally & Tom” is the most indebted. McCauley was the most experimental in her rendering of Hemings’s story and the most explicit in her condemnation of Jefferson. She played herself, her own great-great-grandmother (named Sally) and Hemings. In contrast, her artistic collaborator Jeannie Hutchins, who is white, played her liberal friend, a Smith College graduate and a slave auctioneer.

Hutchins’s character refuses to believe McCauley’s assertions that both Sallys — her ancestor and the historical one — were raped by their slave owners. The play continually broke the fourth wall by inviting the audience to participate in these uncomfortable exchanges, including the bidding, and consider how their own racial bias might stem from such founding violence.

Even though Hemings and Jefferson were not actual characters in James Ijames’s 2020 play, “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” their relationship serves as the historical backdrop for his contemporary satire set on a Southern campus in which TJ, a white middle-aged college dean, sexually harasses Sally, an African American undergraduate.

In “Sally & Tom,” Parks found a way to add to the current conversations about the white gaze in American theater that are taking place among a younger generation of authors whose unorthodox storytelling Parks most likely inspired. These include Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose “Fairview” follows a Black family in an increasingly surreal setting, and Jeremy O. Harris, whose “Slave Play” takes an outrageous look at a sex therapy program for interracial couples.

“Luce is trying to give voice to a marginalized Black woman,” Irving told me about her character. “She’s trying to get it right. And that was my objective for her, to get it right, how to uplift a voice that has never really been heard on a stage in this way.”

“I think she’s architecting this way to free herself,” she added. “She’s architecting a way to free Sally, and by freeing Sally, she is able to free herself.”

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