Rewriting the antebellum script

Theatre Horizon presents James Ijames’s TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever

In
4 minute read
Scene from the play. Banks stands warily opposite Close, seated at a desk in vest & tie. She wears a camo jacket & a backpack
Exploring a cultural metamorphosis of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: Sydney Banks and Sean Close in ‘TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

The weight of inheritance looms large in James Ijames’s TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever, now receiving its regional premiere at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. It’s a concept that transcends the monetary heirlooms and physical traits passed down from ancestors—it includes emotional and psychological baggage as well. And it doesn’t simply reside at the individual level: this portrait of the racism sewn into the fabric of American history considers the issues that still complicate the notion of legacy for Black and white people today.

Ijames said in a recent interview that he took inspiration for this play from a dubious tradition at the University of Virginia. It’s common for students to hang signs on Valentine’s Day celebrating the “love” between Thomas Jefferson—the university’s founder and the country’s third president—and Sally Hemings, the woman he enslaved and regularly raped.

A whitewashed past

The cultural metamorphosis of Jefferson and Hemings’s relationship—from sexual predation to a forbidden yet consensual courtship—speaks to a desire to romanticize and whitewash the past. Only recently has it become widely accepted that Hemings, whose race and gender precluded her from legal autonomy, was not in a position to willingly enter into an affair with a powerful white man.

Yet the idealized antebellum portrayal persists—especially in the South, where Ijames sets his play at the barely fictionalized Commonwealth of Virginia University. The action opens on the eve of the school’s bicentennial, as celebrations of its storied legacy bump up against student protests denouncing the continued veneration of slaveholders. Confederate silhouettes haunt the backdrop of Marie Laster’s set design, never allowing the audience to forget their relentless presence.

Within these hallowed halls, history repeats itself. Dean TJ (Sean Close) pays lip service to the complicated heritage of his forefathers while assiduously maintaining the status quo. He also takes a problematic interest in Sally (Sydney Banks), his work-study student, who makes clear her strong sense of self-possession. The names are not mere coincidence, of course—they are matters of inheritance too.

TJ’s obsession with Sally grows to an uncomfortable fever pitch, underscoring the ways in which predatory figures in higher education exert untoward power over their subordinates. Amid this main theme, Ijames also weaves in echoes of the 2017 neo-Nazi uprising in Charlottesville—where the University of Virginia is located—and the still-roiling debate over the removal of Confederacy-honoring statuary from public spaces. There is hardly a hot button that remains unpushed.

Space for discomfort

These themes unfold in a discursive style that includes dance breaks, marching bands, audience check-ins, and footnotes that provide disturbing context. (Example: nearly 40 percent of female graduate students report experiencing sexual harassment from a male faculty member.) This loose style often allows Ijames to disarm the audience before landing a gut punch, and it emphasizes the messy, complicated nature of the matters at hand. Conflicts and resolutions are rarely linear after all.

At other moments, though, they feel like sketches of a play rather than a fully realized idea. Melanie Cotton’s choreography is consistently exhilarating—especially when executed with lively precision by Banks, Noelle Diane Johnson, and Adaeze Nwoko—but after the third extended dance break, it starts to feel like a placeholder. Director Lauren E. Turner keeps the proceedings moving briskly—almost too much so. The production could linger more thoroughly in the uncomfortable moments.

Everyone’s inheritance

The performances rise to a consistently high level, however. After making a strong impression in a small role in Lantern Theater’s The Vertical Hour, Banks shows that she can take full command of a stage. She wades into Sally’s complicated feelings and her sense of unease in an environment that clearly wasn’t created with a person like her in mind. At the same time, she never loses sight of Sally’s vibrancy or her tenacity.

Close, whose likability has been a selling point in past performances, is refreshingly unafraid to seem repellent here. Devon Sinclair also stands out as an opportunistic activist eager to use Sally’s trauma to advance his own cause.

TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever expects everyone—especially the spectator—to wrestle with the uncomfortable inheritance that we cannot avoid or offload. That’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor, even if the fragmented play often feels somewhat less than the sum of its distinguished parts.

Know Before You Go: TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever includes depictions of racism, violence, and sexual harassment that some viewers may find disturbing. The production also features strobe effects.

What, When, Where

TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever. By James Ijames. Directed by Lauren E. Turner. $15-$35. Through March 20, 2022, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. (610) 277-1056 or theatrehorizon.org.

Theatre Horizon requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination to attend, and masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not distanced.

Accessibility

Theatre Horizon is an ADA-compliant venue with all-gender bathrooms.

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