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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sally & TomGuthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Edward Tulane, Five Minutes of Heaven and Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story


Luke Robertson and Kristen Ariza
Photo by Dan Norman
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is having quite a season: a twentieth anniversary production of her Pulitzer Prize winning play, Topdog/Underdog, opens on Broadway next week; she has a project set to open at New York's Public Theater, where she is playwright-in-residence, titled Plays for the Plague Year (you might hazard a guess what that's about); and she is at work on a stage adaptation of the 1972 Jimmy Cliff film The Harder they Come, slated for The Public Theater this spring. With all that, she found the time and fortitude to usher in the world premiere of her brand-new play, Sally & Tom, right here at the Guthrie (in partnership with The Public Theater). The play is terrific, and with continued refinement, has the makings of another major work from Parks.

The Sally and Tom of the title are Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, of course, was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the nation's first secretary of state, and our third president. He was also a Virginia plantation owner whose inventory included six hundred slaves. One of those was Sally Hemmings, the youngest of several Hemmings siblings who were slaves in the Jefferson household, "privileged"(if that term applies) to be house slaves rather than work the fields because their father, rumor has it, was Jefferson's father-in-law.

During the years between the War for Independence and the adoption of our constitution, Jefferson, then a widower, was the American envoy to Paris. His oldest daughter, Patsy, went to Paris with him in 1784. In 1787, following the death of his middle daughter, Jefferson sent for the youngest, Polly, to join him and Patsy in Paris. Sally Hemmings was chosen to accompany the child on the long journey from Virginia. Sally herself was just fourteen years old.

It is believed that during the twenty-six months Sally stayed in Paris, she and Jefferson began an intimate relationship which lasted for the remainder of his life. Whether or not their union was consensual is argued by historians. Indeed, the definition of "consensual relationship" in that era, or for that matter in our own, remains the subject of debate.

Parks has devised Sally & Tom to take place in two parallel time frames. In the year 1790, Jefferson, his daughters, and his entourage, including Sally, have just returned from Paris to his plantation, Monticello, when he is summoned by President George Washington to New York City, then the fledgling nation's capital, to serve as secretary of state. That is the context of a new play titled "The Pursuit of Happiness," about to have its world premiere in the current year, which is Sally & Tom's second timeframe. "The Pursuit of Happiness" is the work of a non-profit theater surviving on maxed-out credit cards. To make ends meet, playwright Luce and director Mike also act in the play, with Luce as Sally and Mike as Tom. Luce and Mike are life as well as professional partners. Issues emerging in their relationship are juxtaposed against their speculative issues regarding Sally and Tom's liaison.

Other "Pursuit of Happiness" actors take on necessary duties as well. Ginger plays Patsy and is the company's dramaturge. Scout plays Polly and stage manages. Devon has done the lighting and plays Nathan, a slave who is in a clandestine relationship with Mary, Sally's sister–played by Maggie, who is Luce's primary confidante and booster. Geoff designed costumes and sets, while playing all the white characters, other than Jefferson. Luce and Mike scored a coup getting an actor named Kwame, who left the stage to make a splash in film and television. He once had a brief "thing" with Luce and has now agreed to appear as James, Sally's brother who is Jefferson's valet and chef. James harbors resentment against his master for not honoring his promise to grant James his freedom upon returning to Virginia. Kwame, meanwhile, threatens to walk out if his big dramatic speech is cut.

Parks has stuffed a lot into her play, between parallel time frames, ruminations on the nature of freedom, rationalizations for the status quo, the toll capitalism takes on human dignity, the possibility of love in a relationship with tremendous power differentials, the price white society will pay for the evil of slavery, the line that, once crossed, precludes forgiveness, as well as glimpses into the machinations that surround the creation of a new play, especially when the playwright continues to question premises on which the play is based. There is even, briefly, a question about an Asian American cast member's need to care about the torment of Black slaves more than two hundred years ago. And there is a sweetly rendered hook-up between two cast members, such a far cry from the realm of possibility when Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings lived.

Director Steve H. Broadnax III, quite remarkably, keeps all of these sorted out and manages to set out a track for the audience to follow the shifts in period, mood swings, and cuts from one issue to another. He also enables each of the characters to establish a basic sense of who they are and what matters to them at this place in time–all but the twinned characters of Luce/Sally, luminously played by Kristen Ariza, continuing to search from start to finish for a sense of what she wants to say (as a playwright) and how to live within the constraints of her choices as a "great man's" enslaved mistress.

Still, the play is so bursting with ideas, and poses so many unanswerable questions to the audience, that it is hard to take in and absorb. This being its world premiere, and Parks being a playwright whose work demands attention, some whittling away could help to clarify and throw brighter light on the most paramount of her many ideas. The play moves swiftly, yet at a runtime of two and three-quarter hours, can afford to shed some heft and come out even stronger.

Ariza is not alone in delivering an outstanding performance. Each one of the eight-member cast is excellent. Luke Robertson, as Mike/Tom, makes a powerful counterpoint to Ariza's Luce/Sally, as they alternately assert the strain of power one has over the other. Amari Cheatom is terrific as Kwame/James, with fierce eloquence in delivering a speech from James, the enslaved valet, which states all the right things, yet may not serve the greater good in the context of Luce's play. Daniel Petzold gets to contribute a bit of comic relief in his over-eagerness to please in each in each of the roles he plays, and Kadeem Ali Harris, as Devon/Nathan, demonstrates a resourcefulness that can rise to the occasion when all seems lost. Gillian Glasco makes a strong impression as Maggie/Mary, one woman with rock-solid confidence and a sense of her worth as a woman, the other cowering in fear under a system that denies her humanity. Kate Nowlin as Ginger/Patsy and Sun Mee Chomet as Scout/Polly each shine in their respective roles and play well off one another as the older and younger Jefferson sisters.

The play looks and sounds very good, with Riccardo Hernández's set creating a viable stage set for rehearsals of "The Pursuit of Happiness", which easily is stripped away to form the wings and backstage areas of their theater as well as Luce and Mike's modest apartment. Behind all, the words "E Pluribus Unum"–out of many, one–are meaningfully etched into the wall in an elegant script reminiscent of the founding fathers' signatures. Emilio Sosa has designed two complete sets of costumes, one based on late 18th century fashions for the actors in character during rehearsals, and one set of "civilian" attire. As things get increasingly heated, the two are sometimes mixed, an apt reflection of the melding of themes between past and present. Alan C. Edwards does wonders with lighting, and Curtis Craig has given the production crisp, clear sound throughout.

I feel certain that Parks' Sally & Tom will have a life beyond this world premiere production, just as the world premiere of Lynn Nottage's Floyd's at the Guthrie several years ago journeyed on to a Tony nominated Broadway run (retitled Clyde's) and was recently announced to be the most frequently staged play at regional theaters around the nation. The issues Parks addresses in Sally & Tom continue to have primacy in our societal landscape. Her ingenious twinned narrative gives them a compelling airing, along with the pleasure of sharp, authentic dialog and engrossing characters who draw us into the drama. While there will doubtless be alterations in the course of shaping Tom & Sally into its final form, it already stands as a powerful play, being given a world class production.

Sally & Tom runs through November 5, 2022, at Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $31.00 to $44.00. Presented in association with The Public Theater in New York City. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. 15% off regular price tickets for military personnel, veterans and their immediate families. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 – 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00 - $25,00, cash or check only. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.

Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks; Director: Steve H. Broadnax III; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Curtis Craig; Resident Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Mike Rossmy Intimacy Coach: Kelsey Rainwater; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Path; Assistant Director: Lester Mayers.

Cast: Kristin Ariza (Luce/Sally), Amari Cheatom (Kwame/James), Sun Mee Chomet (Scout/Polly), Gillian Glasco (Maggie/Mary), Kadeem Ali Harris (Devon/Nathan), Kate Nowlin (Ginger/Patsy), Daniel Petzold (Geoff/Cooper/Carey/Tobias), Luke Robinson (Mike/Tom).


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