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‘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.

Contemporary woes: Irving and Ebert as a modern couple struggling to produce a play (and overcome race relations in the American theater) in “Sally & Tom.”Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

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