Academic affair: New play moves historic scandal to modern college

Denise Manning, Sierra Leverett, Drew Drake, Aja Downing, and John Bambery
The cast of “Tj Loves Sally 4 Ever,” which will take over Bedford-Stuyvesant theatre Jack until Feb. 29.
Photo by Zoe Freilich

A new play offers a fresh perspective on a closely examined historical affair. “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” opening at Clinton Hill’s Jack theater on Feb. 13, was inspired by the “relationship” between founding father Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, but updates the story to a 21st-century college campus, with Jefferson a dean and Sally one of his student workers. 

The play seeks to sweep away the idea that the relationship may have been consensual, or that Hemings could have been in love with Jefferson, according to its director.  

“No matter how you spin it this was the story of a predator and someone being preyed upon,” said Jordana De La Cruz. 

She hopes that by using a power structure more familiar to modern audiences, the nature of their relationship will become more clear. 

“If you could examine that power dynamic set in the present, people might see it differently,” said De La Cruz. “No one ever thinks ‘Maybe that student really does love that dean that’s pressuring them to sleep with him.’ ”

Playwright James Ijames created the piece after growing frustrated with several new works that portray the two as having had a loving relationship, including the play “Thomas and Sally,” produced in California in 2017. 

“He was really frustrated with that idea,” De La Cruz said. “So much of American society is drawn to putting a nice coat on the past when it comes to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.” 

While writing the play, Ijames interviewed dozens of Brooklynites about their hopes for the future, asking what the world would look like if everyone were free. Those responses were incorporated into the script, said De La Cruz, adding that the play aims to leave behind harmful narratives, and to chart a path towards a more equitable time ahead. 

“It’s about shedding the past and working towards our collective future,” she said. 

“TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” at Jack (18 Putnam Ave. between Grand Avenue and Downing Street in Clinton Hill, www.jackny.org). Feb 13–29, Thu–Sat at 7:30 pm; Sun at 4 pm. $15–$22.