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  • Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks looks at the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson through the prism of 21st Century Americana. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

    Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explores the relationship between founding father Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, in a compelling new play, Sally & Tom.

    The play examines the reality of Jefferson’s relationship with his 14-year-old slave and the presence of “love” and subjugation.

    The story flashes to 2024 and a theatre troupe that is collaborating on an original play about Hemings and Jefferson, which they’ve called The Pursuit of Happiness.

    The play-within-the play is led by a couple, Mike (Gabriel Ebert), who is the director as well as the actor portraying Jefferson, and Luce (Sheria Irving), who is the playwright as well as Hemings.

    In a clever fashion, Sally & Tom and The Pursuit of Happiness are told at the same time. Emotionally wrought scenes filled with passion and tension take place in Jefferson’s home in 1790, alternating with similar, authentic moments with the cast and creative team present-day.

    Because of the back and forth with time, the show can occasionally be confusing. However, the historical aspects are thought-provoking, engaging audiences at every turn.

    The satirical moments in the show feature an appropriately humorous tone as well, thanks to director Steve H. Broadnax III’s ability to find lightness and physical comedy within the play’s confines.

    Happiness is a new venture for the aforementioned theatre troupe, which goes by the name of Good Company. In what used to be a radical group, their pieces included Patriarchy on Parade and Listen Up Whitey, Cause It’s All Your Fault.

    In the end, it turns out that their play is something of a sellout, while trying to sneak a message into a piece of art they’re banking on being successful.

    In both the program and Sally & Tom itself, Parks makes note of the fact that Hemings and Jefferson cannot have a love story. He owned her as a slave and had seven children…and never freed her.

    In one of the most thought-provoking moments (of which there are many), Sally speaks to her circumstances in a soliloquy at the play’s end, in Parks’ customarily beautiful language.

    Sally questions if their relationship involved rape or love, seeing as how she couldn’t make choices because she was legal property.

    Rodrigo Munoz’s costumes succeed in the show (and the show within the show), creating revolutionary Americans and contemporary characters.

    Their authenticity helps support the strong menagerie of actors, a genuine master class in chemistry.

    Riccardo Hernandez’s set is thoughtful and inventive, with reveals that are incredibly worthwhile.

    Sally & Tom is a play about history and how it follows us to the present. It leaves its audiences with a number of questions, making for an intriguing experience at the theatre… and at the theatre-within-a theatre.

    For more information about Sally & Tom, which is now open at The Public and extended through June 2, visit publictheater.org.