Sally & Tom: History Repeats

Sally Hemings is one of the great known-unknowns of American history. We know she existed. We know she bore children to Thomas Jefferson, the man who enslaved her. We know she was likely the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife. We know she outlived him and, while she never officially got to experience freedom, she was “given her time” and allowed to essentially retire from the horrific work of plantation life. But if she ever was able to write down her own thoughts, that writing has not survived to the present day. If she told anyone the story of her life from her own perspective, that story also has not survived.

So Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play, now running at the Public through May 26, feels particularly poignant. It not only looks at interracial power dynamics from 250 years ago, it examines what those relationships look like in a post-Black Lives Matter America.

Set up (at least partially) as a play within a play, Sally & Tom follows a small, no-budget theater troupe that has finally gotten a big producer to support their new piece, written by (and starring) Luce and directed by (and starring) Mike—a couple who love each other almost as much as they frustrate each other. Their new play is about the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, but their producer wants them to make the piece more comfortable for white audiences rather than depicting the true horrors of slavery. As they struggle with the creative process and the compromises required in collaborative art, they struggle with their relationship and the power imbalances inherent in Black and white romance. “This is not a love story” is a repeated phrase throughout the show, but while it isn’t a love story about Hemings and Jefferson, it is a love story about Luce and Mike and their love for their art and what they can do for their community.

It’s intense stuff, but Parks’ script and Steve H. Broadnax III’s direction keeps the play from getting too heavy, finding humor to break up the tension and to keep us listening. As the characters—actors and the creative team of the play within a play—share their thoughts on the evolving production, we learn about their goals and their thoughts on power and abuse of power and how they are still caught up in those dynamics.

Gabriel Ebert and Sheria Irving are excellent in the lead roles. Their chemistry is palpable and they each make Luce and Mike into complex, nuanced characters. Alano Miller gets some wonderful moments late in the show as both actor Kwame and his character James Hemings, and Sun Mee Chomet is very endearing as the one Asian member of the theater company who is finally able to perform in a production—while simultaneously stage managing the show.

Riccardo Hernández’s sets nicely move between the stage, backstage and other places the company goes to, while Alan C.Edwards’ lights keep it clear when we’re watching the play or the play within the play. Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes range from the 1700s to today, nicely evoking not only the contemporary characters’ personalities but the characters Luce has created in her production.

The play does a great job of examining interracial relationships—romantic, professional and friendships alike—and power imbalances past and present and showing, in a range of ways, how little has changed and how far we have to go.

Jena Tesse Fox
Jena Tesse Fox has been writing about theater for more than a decade. Her reviews and articles have appeared on, and She also hosts the Spotlight podcast on

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