‘Sally & Tom’ Off Broadway Review: Thomas Jefferson Revisits the Scenes of His Crimes

“Sally & Tom” contains a play with the play. It is unimaginatively titled “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and that giveaway tells us that we’re not supposed to see it as a very good play.

Performed by a shoestring theater troupe that unimaginatively calls itself the Good Company, “Pursuit” tells the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and keeps asking whether this Founding Father can love a woman he keeps as a slave and if she can love him back. The actors of the Good Company are way too arch and studied to be considered professional. And yet, after two hours and 35 minutes, the best moments of “Sally & Tom” take place within that play within a play. After its 2022 world premiere at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Suzan-Lori Park’s “Sally & Tom” opened Tuesday at the Public Theater.

The word “shoestring” doesn’t begin to describe the Good Company. Luce (Sheria Irving) has written the play “The Pursuit of Happiness” and stars as Sally Hemings. Her boyfriend, Mike (Gabriel Ebert), is directing “The Pursuit of Happiness” and he costars as Thomas Jefferson. Everyone from the scenic designer to the publicist do double — if not triple — duty to perform the other “Pursuit” roles, which includes Jefferson’s two daughters (Sun Mee Chomet and Kate Nowlin), Hemings’ brother and sister (Alano Miller and Kristolyn Lloyd), her brother-in-law (Leland Fowler) and a costume and set designer (Daniel Petzold), who also plays multiple roles in the play within the play.

Parks gets in some amusing lines about the theater, jokes having to do with actors who play multiple roles, nontraditional casting, TV actors slumming in the theater, white actors cast in Black plays, the definition of a “Black play” and stage managers who really want to be actors. There are also very funny and startling moments when the actors drop their 18th century roles and are abruptly back in the present, where they have to deal with all sorts of behind-the-scenes drama, much of which has to do with an unseen moneyman named Teddy who is throwing his weight around and wants to drop a speech delivered by one of the slave characters about the nature of freedom that he finds too incendiary.

This speech, delivered by Miller as part of “Pursuit,” is by far the most riveting moment in the first act of “Sally & Tom,” and is nearly matched in dramatic impact at the end of Act 1 when Ebert’s Jefferson faces the audience to tells us that he’s not a bad man despite owning a few hundred slaves and not freeing them, unlike Ben Franklin and George Washington, when he dies.

“Pursuit” also ends vividly when Irving’s Hemings questions whether she could ever have loved a man whom she met at age 14 when he was 41. She bore seven of his children and he didn’t even bother to free her upon his death. Jefferson left that act of liberation to one his daughters. As Irving’s Luce reminds the troupe, “This is not a love story.”

Under the astute direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, each of these three speeches achieves maximum effect in a vastly different style: fiery (Miller), complacent (Ebert), wounded (Irving). Otherwise, when the actors are playing their contemporary roles, Broadnax’s direction turns “Sally & Tom” into a serious-minded “Noises Off.”

The slave characters are not the only ones who talk about freedom. So do their contemporary counterparts, and what they say has much to do with sexual fidelity within a relationship. Luce, like Sally, has been impregnated by a white man.

There’s another thing going on, not around the edges of “The Pursuit of Happiness,” but of “Sally & Tom.” At times, the plays recalls one of those vintage Hollywood movies where the wealthy couple upstairs carries the moral weight of the story and the domestics downstairs are there for comic relief or merely to comment on what the lead characters are doing. Whether Irving and Ebert are playing Sally and Tom or Luce and Mike, they are meant to be taken seriously, which is more than can be said for the gay couple, played by Fowler and Petzold, who just happen to be the two worst actors in the Good Company.

Eddie Anderson and Hattie McDaniel would sympathize.

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