Celebration Arts production of Mark Medoff’s “Tommy J & Sally” opens with anger, and ends with a capitulation.
Anthony Person’s “Tommy J” (aka Thomas Jefferson) is articulate, vibrant, creative and possessed of a wicked sense of irony. He has a reason to be angry, and enjoys the pretense of being young, black, and angry. His anger is really a sense of profound betrayal. But he chooses to play a role he feels has been assigned to him due to racial stereotypes.
Nicole DeCroix’s “Sally Hemmings” (aka Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress) is also articulate and vibrant, creative and possessed of a wicked sense of self-possession. She has a sense of irony as well, but the true irony is that she has a particular reason to be self-possessed, because her identity is of concern to her. She also has a pretense to maintain, and she goes to great lengths to avoid her own sense of racial stereotyping.
From the start it’s clear the two characters have secrets, and it doesn’t take long to see they are not entirely honest with each other or themselves. And in the course of mutual self-discovery — unwrapping their past and revealing who they really are and what their relationship is — they say all the things people think about but never say in polite company.
To wit: black people play at anger because it allows them to cover their feelings of inadequacy and therefor sabotage their own chances of success. White people play at liberalism to hide a profound sense of guilt and fear, and will revert to racist form whenever they get scared.
The two characters fight for control of the physical space and the philosophical space, and neither really wins. They wear and tear each other apart until all that’s left is the need to admit their failures and be relieved of each other. Watching them to come to grips with their own faults is a bitter-sweet success.
To see this played out for 90 minutes is amazing. These two young actors are powerful. The dialog is fast, complex, non-stop and requires exquisite timing. The plot is intriguing, blunt, and requires no suspension of dis-belief. It may not be fact, but it could be. Which of course is troubling.
But of course that’s what theater is about.