'Sally & Tom' review — meta-theatrical play examines history, money, and power

Read our review of Sally & Tom off Broadway, a New York-premiere play written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III at The Public Theater.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

Sally & Tom begins at the end. From among several people dancing a spirited, violin-accompanied minuet emerge Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, his enslaved mistress. They look to the audience and see the future, full of possibility. And then the scene (and its hope?) breaks. Will its audience as well?

The actors are playing members of Good Company, a ragtag theatre company putting on a show called The Pursuit of Happiness, written by Luce (Sheria Irving), who also plays Sally, and directed by her white romantic and creative partner Mike (Gabriel Ebert). He is playing the man they refer to as TJ. Good Company began as a troupe that put on radical, truth-to-power shows no one saw, but its play examining the complex, contradictory, and disturbing dynamic between Thomas, Sally, and the Monticello household might, with the help of an unseen producer, finally be their chance at making it. If things don’t fall apart before the show goes on, that is.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has returned to the fraught topic of performance and Blackness — as she did with plays like The American Play, about a Black Abraham Lincoln impersonator — and Luce is an acknowledgment of Parks’s history. A Black woman playwright must balance the demands of creative freedom, money, power, and history, and Irving plays the arguable Parks avatar with both the verve of an artistic voice that wants to be heard and the weariness of one who has confronted the growing contradictions of art and commerce.

But, despite this clever self-reflexive streak – who doesn’t love a play within a play? – Parks may have bitten off a little more than we can chew. There are bursts of her usual brilliance: Sally & Tom's beautiful language, its grasp on the contradictions of history and emotion, its exploration of the often inadequate platforms Black people are given (if at all) to reckon with the past and hope for the future. But the meta-theatrical play stuffs in too many numerous character threads as Sally & Tom toggles between onstage and backstage at Good Company, where the character’s insights and anxieties come out.

Nonetheless, uncertainty and paradox fill the room with wistfulness as the audience is asked to imagine how freedom and a new history can be made.

Sally & Tom summary

Not too long before their show about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is about to start performances, the overworked Good Company troupe has to roll with the punches as Luce makes changes to the script. She needs to write a new ending and possibly cut a major monologue, and her relationship with Mike must bear the weight of two kinds of pressure: the show’s implications about power, sex, and race, as well as the tension between making the show as authentic as possible or bowing to the wealthy producer.

What to expect at Sally & Tom

Sally & Tom switches between the play-within-a-play and the behind-the curtain-antics with a furiousness that is mostly seamless. They’re of two different tones: a relatively serious period drama that seeks to speak truth to power and the rambunctious production that interrogates what speaking truth to power actually means today.

The cast handles these two varying styles, and their ability to place them in conversation with one another, with an expert sense of humanity, and the gradual fracturing of everyone’s psyches as the play falls apart gives the show melancholy.

What audiences are saying about Sally & Tom

Sally & Tom has a 75% approval rating from audiences on Show-Score, averaged from 54 ratings at the time of publication.

  • “Just watching the incredible YSD grad Sheria Irving on stage is worth coming to the play.” - Show-Score user Betty 909052
  • “Intriguing device of finding parallels between history & contemporary story. Beautiful, passionate writing, vivid performances, stimulating.” - Show-Score user glenn m 6154
  • “An intellig[ent] exam[ination] of Amer[ican] history: could Sally/TJ have loved ea[ch] other? Backstage scenes less successful. Plot [points] not believable.” - Show-Score user Theater Buff

Read more audience reviews of Sally & Tom on Show-Score.

Who should see Sally & Tom

  • Fans of Suzan-Lori Parks's vivid and expressive writing should check out Sally & Tom, as she takes every imaginable facet of the Sally/Thomas dynamic, from the question of love to the topic of capital, and unspools it in beautiful language.
  • If audiences enjoy a backstage dramedy or shows within shows, Sally & Tom fleshes out the world of low-budget political theatre and explores what happens when money is on the table.
  • People looking for a simply great performance: Sheria Irving is a standout, empathetic, assertive, tender, and exciting. She vacillates between playing Luce-as-Sally, Sally, and Luce seamlessly, taking on the burden of creative energy and the complex possible realities of Hemings's inner life.

Learn more about Sally & Tom off Broadway

Although Sally & Tom runs long and its meta-theatre conceit puts too much on the show’s plate, it’s nonetheless an invigorating examination of the pain and power of narrativizing history — and what happens when the possibility of finally making it lays bare who gets to hold that pain and power.

Learn more and get Sally & Tom tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Sally & Tom is at The Public Theater through May 12.

Photo credit: Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert (center) and the cast of Sally & Tom. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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