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“Sally and Tom” reviewed

Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play is most interesting when the characters stop talking to each other and confront the audience. Tom, you should know, is Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and a lifelong slaveowner. “I owned people,” he says, staring straight at us. “Contemplate, for a moment, if you will, the depth of what means.” Among other things, he notes, “An investment in land and slaves was the best way to bring profit to an individual and to a country. My Negroes make a yearly profit of 4%. Not bad.”

If the last comment doesn’t cause a sharp intake of breath, Tom adds that “on their deathbeds,” contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington freed their slaves, yet he did not, a fact for which he offers no apology. “You might hate me,” he adds, “Go ahead. I did hateful things.” The speech is a tightrope for an actor and Gabriel Ebert traverses it nimbly, offering a carefully darkened portrait of a character often rendered in romantic/heroic terms. Yes, he admits, he usually gets credit for being rather kinder than most to his slaves. But on what moral ledger should that count as an asset?

Tom has taken as his lover the slave woman Sally Hemings, and, near the end, she finally gets her say. As Sally and Tom notes, their relationship remains poorly understood. We can’t be certain it took place and, even if it did, could such an arrangement, with its grotesque power imbalance, have been touched by love and/or affection? Addressing us evenly, almost dispassionately, Sally refuses to provide simple answers. “It was not rape as such,” she says. “Or maybe it was. And maybe that’s all it was. The things we have to give, the things we have to give up. Don’t think you’re immune. I sleep with a man some would call the enemy. And for what? For a better life.” (Sheria Irving, who plays Sally, gives the character an almost unnerving poise, preserving her essential mystery. She made a bargain. Or maybe she had no choice. Either way, how can we know what she felt about it? And who would dare judge her?

These speeches feature some of Parks’ most glittering writing, which is saying something; where other playwrights prefer to shout, she makes her points quietly, observantly, and devastatingly. If all of Sally and Tom were on this level, it would stand among her finest works. But, in an attempt at creating a conversation between then and now, she has embedded her observations about one of American history’s most tantalizing enigmas inside a backstage comedy that sometimes feels carelessly conceived. In broadening her argument, she occasionally distracts from it.