By Tulis McCall

Sally and Tom“,  by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the Public Theater, is a surprisingly tepid piece that contains magnificent highlights.  It is, for those of you who have been living under a rock, the story of Thomas Jefferson (Gabriel Ebert) and his mistress Sally Hemings (Sheria Irving) who were together for several decades.  “Together” is a cavalier term, because all that time Hemings was a slave.  Jefferson never granted her freedom, even after he died.  (Washington and Franklin both did but who’s counting.)

“Sally and Tom” is also the story of Lucy and Mike, played by the same duo mentioned above, who are, when we meet them, a couple living and collaborating together.

It is also the story of a small theatre company called Good Company, where there are “no bad ideas.”  Lucy and Mike are at its helm.

Good Company is producing “The Pursuit of Happiness,” a left-wing play about Jefferson and Hemings written by Lucy and directed by Mike.  Parks moves us back and forth in time from the 18th century to the present.  From Sally and Tom to Lucy and Mike and the play they are creating.

There is an off stage producer for “Happiness,” Teddy, who is at best dictatorial and at worst unclear.  Seems as though everything is riding on his continued investment.  The company is of course broke – where DID they get the funds for the stunning costumes and wigs I wonder? The company is also as contradictory as its producer, with changes flaring up left and right.  So many changes that one of the excellent actors drifts back and forth like a vaudevillian carrying signs that tell us how many days until opening or exactly which preview number this is.  This doesn’t help much because script and plot changes (an unwieldy and unbelievable element of this tale,) are being added up to and including the opening night.

In addition, every member of this fine cast – and this is a magnificent ensemble – has a character story and a civilian story.  Characters are fighting for power.  Characters are fighting for thier lives.  Offstage, people are falling in love.  People are getting acting work elsewhere.  Lucy is looking for her path as an artist.  Mike is just looking to get through this production.  All of their lives outside of this production are being affected by the production.

Though the producer is never seen, Teddy has a boatload of fuchsia sticky notes.  These are unceremoniously delivered to whoever is onstage by the Stage Manager Scout (Sun Mee Chomet) who wants to be something other than a Stage Manager.  Hence, some of the most arresting moments are torn out of our grasp. including one of the three monologues on which this play seems to be built.  The first being delivered by James Hemings (Alano Miller) from a fiery height as a retort to being asked to “remember himself” which is code for “shut up and get out of my face.”  It is a mighty delivery.

The second and, in my opinion, the most daring, is the one delivered with silken, calming, and dangerous intonations by Thomas Jefferson (the cast calls  him TJ) in which he admits to all the faults he will allow to pass his lips (owning slaves, selling off family member to separate plantations when economics dictated).  He then tallies up the pros.  He wrote the Declaration.  He rewrote the Bible.  He is on Mount Rushmore.  He was a victim of his time, he tells us – as are we.  Love him or  hate him – that is our choice.  “I stand at the intersection of the horrible, and the splendid and the dizzy-making contradiction that is all of us…” he nearly whispers.  It is a chilling razor’s edge..

In the final monologue, one of facts and hope, Sally tells her tale.  She had 7 children with Jefferson.  He freed the children but not her.  He rendered asunder families that made him a rich man in appearance.  There was love and there was hate.  There were things Sally wanted to say, but didn’t.  All of the slaves were caught.  The wanted to burn the house down but didn’t.  Reparations are a flimsy idea – slaves and their children are owed much more than money.  Parks unites the two couples present and past.  Sally and Lucy both promise TJ and Mike “be assured that, someway, somehow, I will find my freedom here.”

This is not said out of spite but out of strength.  You can live someplace (like this country) and you can endure that place that confines you, and always keep some part of you to yourself, knowing that people will never see it.  Some part like the soles of your feet.  The soles that are always ready to move toward what you know is yours.

This is a long winded and thin-on-plot tale that could use a judicious trim.  In spite of that it still packs a wallop.  Parks does not permit us to go gently into that good night.  She will not leave us sitting comfortably in our own upstanding ignorance.  Like Jefferson she stands at the “intersection of the horrible and the splendid.” She serves up both in equal measure and dares us to look away when she knows that the spell she has cast will not allow us to do so.

SALLY & TOM by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III

WITH Mee Chomet,(Scout/Polly), Gabriel Ebert (Mike/Tom), Leland Fowler (Devon/Nathan), Sheria Irving (Luce/Sally), Kristolyn Lloyd (Maggie/Mary), Alano Miller(Kwame/James), Kate Nowlin (Ginger/Patsy), Daniel Petzold (Geoff/Cooper/ColonelCarey/Mr. Tobias),

Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández; costume design by Rodrigo Muñoz; lighting design by Alan C. Edwards; sound design by Dan Moses Schreier; music composed by Suzan-Lori Parks and Dan Moses Schreier; hair, wig, and make-up design by J. Jared Janas and Cassie Williams; prop management by Rachel M. F. Kenner; fight and intimacy direction by Kelsey Rainwater and Michael Rossmy ;choreography by Edgar Godineaux

Through May 12.  TICKETS HERE.