When ‘TJ Loves Sally,’ she’s now in control
On a contemporary, leafy college campus in the South, a historically important but troubling relationship is being reenacted.
But the telling of the tale this time won’t be by historians talking about one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, an iconic Virginian and the third president of the United States, who had a long well-documented relationship with one of his Black slaves, Sally Hemmings.
This time it will be told by a modern-day Sally (Tah-Janay Shayoñe), who breaks down the fourth wall – or is it the fifth wall, given the virtual nature of the performance – to tell us in her own words what really happened when it came to her and an administrator at the college, Dean Thomas “TJ” Jefferson.
The talented Jared Troilo is all in as he takes a crash course in Creepiness 101 to play Dean Jefferson, a modern-day stand-in for the real Thomas Jefferson, in James Ijames’ “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” now being streamed through May 13 on the SpeakEasy Stage Company website, a partnership between SpeakEasy and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
Ijames’ play was filmed onstage at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts without an audience, and has allowed director Pascale Florestal to embellish the onstage action with footage of excesses endemic to Southern colleges along with more recent footage of the Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol.
The college in Virginia where the play is sited has a fiounders’ wall that teems with old white men in lab coats, the descendants of Confederate soldiers or slave owners. The founder himself is a former slave owner, noted none-too-subtly with spray paint by an activist Black student named Harold (Jordan Pearson).
The students are also irked to live in dorms named for slave owners or Confederate icons.
Sally has two running mates in fellow Boston Conservatory students Sky Berrian and Sadiyah Dyce Stephens, who play Sally’s fun-loving but super-supportive sorority sisters.
As the abuse escalates – think totally inappropriate photos — Sally exudes a quiet confidence that masks a steely resolve that never gives in to TJ’s abuse, even as he ups the ante, forcing Sally to transfer out of TJ’s department and take ever-stronger methods to protect herself.
TJ never gets overtly physical but many kinds of abuse and harassment are not overtly physical – based on control and opportunity instead – and that unwanted attention, stalking and other forms of abuse and harassment can be just as damaging or more so than the actual laying-on of hands.
Choreographer Kira Cowan Troilo contributes to a scene when TJ and Harold become dueling tappers, a nod to antebellum traditions that seem resistant to the changes going on around them, or when the three female students perform the kind of step show traditionally performed by Black sororities and fraternities.
Ijames also enjoys poking fun at other hoary traditions of Southern colleges, such as and football and beauty pageants. He makes his points not by pounding on a drum, but surgically through humor and with a thousand small cuts.
As TJ keeps upping the ante there will be debate about what the right call is when it comes to exposing TJ for what he really is. But in the end it’s Sally’s story to tell, and she carefully explains her choices to us.
There will come a defining moment in “TJ Loves Sally” when Ijames will ask the audience to reach beyond our present reality to weigh in on what happens next, and the theater-goer then has nowhere to hide.
Ijames, a Philadelphia-based playwright, director and educator and his characters look back at what happened centuries ago, confront our ugly present realities head-on and, led by an unbowed Sally, start charting a course for the future.
James Ijames’ “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever.” Directed by Pascale Florestal. A partnership between the SpeakEasy Stage Company and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Presented online through May 13. Tickets $30. SpeakEasyStage.com.