This Play Within a Play Confronts the Power Dynamic Between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

In “Sally & Tom,” Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks continues her investigation of American myths

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert in the New York premiere of Sally & Tom, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Public Theater
Suzan-Lori Parks' Sally & Tom makes its New York debut on April 16. Joan Marcus

The 21st century was brand new when Suzan-Lori Parks became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her play Topdog/Underdog had opened in the summer of 2001. It followed brothers Lincoln and Booth as they struggled against the dire circumstances they’d been born into: parental abandonment, racism, poverty. No one should have been surprised when the play climaxed with Booth shooting and killing Lincoln, but it was a devastating denouement all the same.

The original Off Broadway production starred Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle as Lincoln and Booth, respectively; like Parks, the two actors were already successful but would see their stars rise even higher with time. Topdog/Underdog represented a creative breakthrough for Parks, deepening her engagement with a theme she’d explored in earlier pieces, particularly 1993’s The America Play, and would repeatedly return to: the American myth.

“I’m a myth-head,” she tells Smithsonian before an all-day tech rehearsal of her 2022 play, Sally & Tom, which opens on April 16 at New York City’s Public Theater—the same venue where Topdog/Underdog premiered not quite 23 years ago. “I really love myths, and I understand that for Americans, in my experience, the way we understand our story is by embracing these big stories,” she says.

Parks poses on the red carpet at the 76th Annual Tony Awards, where she won Best Revival of a Play for Topdog/Underdog.
Parks poses on the red carpet at the 76th Tony Awards, where she won Best Revival of a Play for Topdog/Underdog. Cindy Ord / Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

First staged at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in the fall of 2022, Sally & Tom threads the needle between the intimate and the mythic. In the show, a theater troupe rehearses a play about the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, her enslaver and the father of at least six of her children. The action hopscotches between Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia estate, around 1790 and present-day New York. In the play within a play, writer Luce and director Mike portray Sally and Tom, respectively. On top of their dual roles in the production, the pair are a cohabitating romantic couple—just one more unstable element in a potentially volatile brew.

This conceit allows Parks to dramatize her own process of trying to imagine and represent the perspectives of two long-dead people—a powerful founding father and a woman who was, in the eyes of 18th-century law, his property—with rigor and empathy. But Parks is a dramatist, not a historian.

Unless she’s both, which is the kind of contradiction she’s keen to explore. “Light is a particle and a wave,” she says, by way of rejecting a strictly binary worldview. It’s a phrase she’ll return to many times during an hourlong discussion of how she set about trying to answer the question that Luce, her fictional playwright-actor, is also pondering: Given the impossible power dynamic of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship, is it possible that any genuine love could have existed between them?

Sally & Tom Teaser | Guthrie Theater

For Parks, the answer is yes—and also no. Particle and wave.

“Was there love?” she asks. “Yes. No. Was it rape? Yes. No.” In Parks’ play, the Sally character says, “It was a mixture, just like me and just like everything else.” To the playwright, this line suggests that “we have to embrace the both of everything. There could be something that could be considered love between them, and yet it was a nightmare. Sometimes it was both. It’s not one or the other.”

Born in 1773, Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, an enslaved woman, and John Wayles, her enslaver. Wayles was also the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, meaning Martha and Hemings were half-sisters. Hemings arrived at Monticello as a toddler, one of more than 100 enslaved people inherited by Martha and Jefferson following Wayles’ death in 1773. Martha died in 1782, leaving Jefferson a widower.

When Hemings was 14, she was chosen to accompany Jefferson’s daughter to Paris, where the future president was serving as an American ambassador to France. While they were abroad, Jefferson impregnated the teenage Hemings.

Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert in the New York premiere of Sally & Tom, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Public Theater
Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert in the New York premiere of Sally & Tom, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Public Theater Joan Marcus

Under French law, enslaved people brought into the country could petition for their freedom. Aware that she would likely be freed if she remained in France, Hemings “demurred” when Jefferson tried to “bring [her] back to Virginia with him,” recalled the couple’s son Madison Hemings in a 1873 interview. “To induce her to do so,” Madison added, Jefferson “made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of 21 years.”

Gayle Jessup White, the public relations and community engagement officer at Monticello, says that Hemings “very cleverly … negotiated with [Jefferson, winning] privileges, extraordinary privileges, for herself and, ultimately, freedom for their children and their unborn children.”

Much of what is known about Hemings’ life comes from Madison’s 1873 testimony. In his interview with an Ohio newspaper, Madison used the word “concubine” to describe what his mother was to his father.

“There are no documents from” Hemings herself, says White. “There’s no testimony from her about how she felt about Thomas Jefferson.”

An 1845 article in the Liberator ​​​​​​​about the Hemings family
An 1845 article in the Liberator about the Hemings family Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

White is a direct descendant of Jefferson and his wife, as well as the great-great-great-granddaughter of Hemings’ brother Peter. Her decades-long investigation into her family history resulted in a 2021 book, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and a Descendant's Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy. White plans to see Sally & Tom later this month, and she is confident that Parks’ play will represent her ancestors—particularly Hemings—in all their dimensionality.

“Here’s a young person, 16 years old, thousands of miles away from her home,” White says. “This was a close family, and she’s thousands of miles away from her mother and … pregnant in a foreign country. But she had the courage and the brains to negotiate with one of the most influential men of his era.”

White says that she has “the utmost respect” for Hemings and is “very proud to be related to her.” However Hemings is portrayed in the play, she adds, “I’m sure it will be in an elevated way, and in a way that represents the intellect that young woman had. That’s important.”

White House History Live: Reclamation with Gayle Jessup White

In 2014, Parks debuted the three-part play Father Comes Home From the Wars, about an enslaved man who accompanies his owner into battle on behalf of the Confederacy in exchange for the promise of freedom after the conflict’s end. Though the setting is 1860s America, the show is loosely modeled on Homer’s Odyssey.

“That was the first time I had centered enslaved people in the American mythic context,” Parks says. Hero, the enslaved man at the center of the trilogy, eventually adopts the moniker Ulysses, which is both the Roman version of the name Odysseus and the name of Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army. Hero has a dog named Odd-See, played by a human actor, who frequently comments on the action.

By giving herself license to venture into the absurd, Parks makes connections that historians can only gesture toward. While writing Father Comes Home From the Wars, she realized that the story of Hemings and Jefferson was another American myth that might reward imaginative investigation.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) montage

Parks began by reading what she calls “the dry histories”—not mentioning any specific titles. “This was ten years ago, so I don’t have my bibliography,” she says with a laugh. She avoided anything that struck her as an attempt to imagine what Hemings might have thought or felt, instead choosing to “do my own surmising so I wouldn’t be incorporating someone else’s imaginative work into my own.”

Whenever a writer tries to recreate the interior life of a real person, questions of ethics inevitably arise. But “like Walt Whitman said, ‘I contain multitudes,’” Parks says. “And I really believe that as a writer, as an artist, I contain multitudes.” William Shakespeare, she points out, was neither Hamlet nor King Lear nor Richard III. Of those three examples, only the last was a historical figure, though speculative historical antecedents exist for the others. But Parks’ argument—that Shakespeare was “a writer who could inhabit all those understandings”—still stands. “That’s the kind of writing I seek to do in my own work,” she says. “The simplest way to say this is I’ll put myself in someone else’s shoes, walk around in someone else’s shoes.”

This walking isn’t just metaphorical. While working on Sally & Tom, Parks returned to Monticello, which she’d visited decades earlier as a teenager, with the intention of trying to imagine Hemings’ life there. She toured the house and the gardens, as well as Mulberry Row, where the enslaved people stayed. “I took several of those tours and wept many tears,” Parks says. “It’s a difficult story to embrace and a necessary story to embrace.”

Jefferson's Monticello estate, as seen in 2016
Jefferson's Monticello estate, as seen in 2016 Xiaorui Du via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Embracing Hemings’ story meant empathizing even with Jefferson. “I had to lend an ear to him,” she says, extending compassion to a man she initially thought of as the enemy. In the play, “Tom has a speech in which he is defensive and also asks for our understanding. … To allow him that opportunity as a character is the key. Then I could listen to Sally. She’s living in his house, right?”

Parks adds, “I am so happy with the things that Sally gets to say in the play. She finally gets to say some things that are heartbreaking, disturbing and very resonant to our lives today. And she discovers some things about herself that perhaps she might not have had a chance to discover during the confines of her lifetime.”

Historians may chafe, but it’s not especially uncommon to hear a playwright or an author discuss their characters as though they’re independent beings the writer is merely observing. Parks got an early lesson in being receptive to those inspirational signals from a notable teacher: In the mid-1980s, she studied at Hampshire College under writer James Baldwin.

Suzan-Lori Parks attends a rehearsal for the New York premiere of Sally & Tom.
Suzan-Lori Parks attends a rehearsal for the New York premiere of Sally & Tom. Joan Marcus

“He said it was the first creative writing class that he taught, ever, and there we were, 15 students around that big library table,” Parks recalls. The major lesson she took away from Baldwin—one that she now tries to pass on to her own students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts—was not about technique, but bearing.

“The main thing he taught me is how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit,” she says, “how to listen with rapt attention, how to conduct myself like, ‘I am a lightning rod. I am ready. Send it. We will achieve transmission!’”

“I’m still learning it today,” Parks says. “Every project is new.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.