Review: In ‘Sally & Tom,’ Plantation Scandal Meets Backstage Farce

If I were reviewing “The Pursuit of Happiness,” produced by a “low-budget-no-budget” troupe called Good Company, I might note that the subtlety, cleverness and humanity with which it approaches the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson come as quite a surprise. After all, Good Company is best known for “politically charged,” “finger-waggy” provocations like “Patriarchy on Parade” and “Listen Up, Whitey, Cause It’s All Your Fault” — work that leaves audiences running for the exits while casts bid them farewell with the bird.

But “The Pursuit of Happiness” isn’t real: It’s the play within Suzan-Lori Parks’s backstager “Sally & Tom,” which opened on Tuesday at the Public Theater.

Still, my review stands — except for one thing. The subtlety, cleverness and humanity with which “Sally & Tom” approaches the story of Hemings and Jefferson, dazzlingly doubled in the story of the troupe putting it on, come as no surprise at all. They are the hallmarks of an author incapable of writing a line unfilled with the bewildering burden — or is it the treasure? — of human contradiction.

Indeed, Parks begins with an unprovable yet also undisprovable thesis. She has Luce, the author and star of “The Pursuit of Happiness,” decree: “This is not a love story.”

Luce (Sheria Irving) feels compelled to say so because her boyfriend, Mike, the show’s director — and also its Jefferson — wants a happier ending than the one she has written. As a proper white ally, Mike (Gabriel Ebert) understands that love is, at best, a problematic notion when one of the lovers is owned by the other. Even after 30 years together, Jefferson did not free Hemings in his will.

But would it be so awful, he wonders, to make more money and draw a wider audience — which Luce mishears as a “whiter” one — by introducing just a bit of recognizable romance at the curtain? Can the not-yet-third president and the teenager who would soon bear six of his children at least hold hands?

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