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“Sally & Tom” frees Sally Hemings from being a footnote

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

In “Sally & Tom,” Suzan Lori-Parks is the latest writer to try to fill in the gaps to portray Hemings as a multi-dimensional character — all while salvaging her onstage persona. “We don’t know what happened,” Sheria Irving, who portrays Hemings in the play, told me, adding that Parks “builds on this factual portrayal.” (The play was a hit at the Public Theater and runs there through June 2.)

She continued: “We don't need to change our minds, we can really imagine what it is like for a 14-year-old to be looked at by a 41-year-old and not just to be looked at but to engage in sexual exploitation with it.” Man .”

Parks' fidelity to history means that she does not change Hemings' fate. Instead, she experiments with storytelling by planning “Sally & Tom” as a backstage performer or a play within a play, in which the main character Luce (also played by Irving) is an African-American playwright whom she writes a play about the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. Luce plays Hemings in her own play called The Pursuit of Happiness.

In fact, each cast member plays two roles: Luce's partner Mike (Gabriel Ebert) plays Tom in the production, and Alano Miller plays both Hemings' older brother James and Kwame, a Hollywood actor who has returned to his old theater company. When historical and current history collide, they often reveal the sometimes comical and often complicated reality that can emerge when putting on a show about race relations in the American theater today.

This doubling enables Parks' two-part critique. First, Luce's focus on Hemings contradicts the Jefferson historians who have sought to erase her legacy. Additionally, Luce's struggle for control over her play's ending highlights the pressures black playwrights sometimes face in commercial theater: the white gatekeepers, producers, and actors who are less interested in a black author's artistic freedom and more interested in to control the narrative, claiming this makes the work more palatable to a white audience. (Something Alice Childress experienced and wrote about.)

While metanarratives are part of Parks' avant-garde aesthetic, “Sally & Tom” reminded me of something I'd noticed while researching my book “Sites of Slavery”: Parks' new play is part of a canon of black writers who subverts genre conventions to prioritize Hemings' life and perspective. In doing so, these authors free Hemings and the other enslaved members of her family from being mere footnotes in Jefferson's biography.

After reading a chapter about Hemings in Fawn Brodie's 1974 psychological study of Thomas Jefferson, Barbara Chase-Riboud decided to write her own novel. “Sally Hemings,” published as historical fiction in 1979, uses a nonlinear structure that begins with Hemings and Jefferson's earliest encounters in 1787, when 14-year-old Hemings accompanied the family to Paris to care for Jefferson's daughters while he was stationed there as a high-ranking minister; to their coexistence in Albemarle County, Virginia in the early 19th century; and to her life in Virginia as a free woman after his death. These flashbacks and flashbacks show how Hemings coped with enslavement and emancipation while imagining how she could have developed into a woman who challenged Jefferson's authority and secured freedom for her four children as they reached adulthood.

In 1997, in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, historian Annette Gordon-Reed took Jefferson's previous biographers and historians to task for insisting that Jefferson fathered his six children with Hemings unlikelyincluding some who claimed he had been celibate for almost four decades, while others attributed the lineage to his nephews Peter and Samuel Carr.

Gordon-Reed's style resembles a metahistoriography in which she compares these earlier biographies while simultaneously cross-examining, as a law professor, the Jefferson scholars' motives, their lack of evidence, and their deliberate misinterpretations of firsthand testimony about Hemings, and Jefferson's long-term relationship in the published ones Stories from her 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' “Sally & Tom” is most indebted. McCauley was the most experimental in her presentation of Hemings' 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 slave auctioneer.

Hutchins' character refuses to believe McCauley's claims that both Sallys – her ancestor and the historical one – were raped by their slave masters. The play repeatedly broke the fourth wall by inviting audiences to participate in these uncomfortable exchanges, including the call for proposals, and to consider how their own racial bias might result from this founding violence.

Although Hemings and Jefferson were not real characters in James Ijames' 2020 play “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” their relationship serves as a historical backdrop for his contemporary satire set on a Southern campus where TJ, a Middle-aged white college dean, plays He sexually harasses Sally, an African-American student.

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

“Luce is trying to give a voice to a marginalized black woman,” Irving told me about her character. “She’s trying to do it right. And that was my goal for them: to get it right, how to bring a voice that has never really been heard on a stage to life in that way.”

“I think she's planning this route to free herself,” she added. “She devises a way to free Sally, and by freeing Sally, she is able to free herself.”

Anna Harden

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