TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever: Watch out for TJ

It seems appropriately inappropriate to write about James Ijames’s TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever (playing at JACK through February 29th) on Presidents Day. The “TJ” referenced in the play’s title stands for Thomas Jefferson, our third president, and Sally is an echo of Sally Hemings, a black woman who gave birth to at least six of Jefferson’s children while being enslaved by him. It so happens that each third Monday of February, we celebrate a national holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday, founder of the nation and also, um, a slave owner, although there is no record suggesting that he impregnated any of them. 

In Ijames’s play, Thomas Jefferson is not the president of the United States – instead, he’s the dean at some unnamed university and Sally is a student who has been assigned to his office for work-study hours. Played exuberantly by Sierra D. Leverett, Sally initially tries to brush off TJ’s unwanted advances, but things get icky pretty fast, and that’s before the dick pics start showing up on her phone. This one-sided relationship serves as the play’s driver; the work reaches out to touch other ideas in passing, but is anchored by the bad-to-worse progression of TJ’s consistently unhinged pursuit.

One of the supporting ideas, that of inheritance, is prominently headlined near the top of show. Sally, who also serves as a narrator along with school tour guides Annette (Aja Downing) and Pam (Starr Kirkland), wheels out a whiteboard with the word “inheritance” written on it in red marker. The cast is assembled, and the audience is asked to think about what each of them might have inherited. What hair type – what skin color – what trauma might each of them be carrying from their ancestors? This is quickly tied to another supporting theme embodied by student activist Harold (Drew Drake), who has entered into an escalating standoff with Dean Jefferson over the university’s refusal to remove the names of former slave-owners from its buildings. (Refer back to: Presidents who owned slaves. Twelve of them! And their names are everywhere.)

The world of the play is built with a flurry of broadly confident strokes, both via the words of the playwright and also in its quick-hitting staging (the director, Jordana De La Cruz, is also Co-Director of JACK). Showing off the versatility of the room, the action takes place in the middle, with audience seating on two sides. Green turf marks the playing space, and there’s a walled-off door with LED light emanating through the cracks and light bulbs hanging from the ceiling (the simple but effective lighting design is by Megan Lang).

There is also a marching band. (On Ijames’s website, he calls it “a marching band or the theatrical equivalent.) These sections, choreographed by Candace Taylor, engage Sally, Pam, and Annette in some serious reckless-abandon-style movement, sometimes carrying horns, sometimes just dancing. They seem blissed out when in motion – inhabiting their bodies, nothing to hold them back or down.

There’s a lot to engage with, although sometimes it feels like the material could use a bit more specification. In particular, TJ, played by John Bambery, is a broadly-written sniveling creep of a character – a version of the Shitty White Guy™ who has been popping up on quite a few stages over recent seasons. To the credit of the actor, TJ isn’t played for easy laughs, although a few more chuckles might have undercut the mounting discomfort that comes with watching this guy chase Sally down. I’m not sure if it’s worth taking issue with the fact that we know from the get-go that TJ’s no good, and so what follows doesn’t hold much by way of dramatic surprise, although at least TJ eventually runs into an unexpected (and probably unearned) moment of reckoning. In order to find an landing point, Ijames pulls out several theatrical devices near the end, including a literal dismantling and an audience vote.

One argument that TJ makes, and that Sally also negotiates while in her role as narrator is that this couldn’t happen like this now, could it? Let the past be past! Well… in the town I grew up in, there was a real-life Shitty White Guy™ named Ralph Engelstad, who was among other things a noted Nazi sympathizer. He built a very expensive hockey arena for the local university, and leased it to them for $1 a year so that he could withhold it if they did anything he didn’t approve of. Like, say, change their name. The hockey team’s name, at the time of the building of the building, was the Fighting Sioux. Engelstad, aware of the controversy surrounding the name, strategically placed the Sioux logo in thousands of places about the stadium, including a large granite logo in the main concourse. The name of the hockey team has since been changed (by orders of the NCAA), but the name of the arena remains the same.

In this context, I wonder about inheritance versus legacy. What we inherit versus what we wish to pass on. All those toxic names on our money, our buildings, even our clothing. How they got there, and what it might mean to strip them of their meaning and power. And what about our names? Can we out-name the past? How can our collective legacy be something that future generations will want to build upon, as opposed to tear down?

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