Race relations: Tommy J and Sally is a powerful drama

Tommy J and Sally is about as ambitious a play about black/white relations as I’ve seen since Jobsite Theater produced This Is How It Goes several years ago. But where Neil LaBute’s play was mostly about white views of African-Americans, Mark Medoff’s two-character piece looks at race from both sides of the color line, exposing not only the inevitable tensions but also the yearning for reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption.
If the current production at The [email protected] is imperfect, still it manages to convey much of what Medoff has to tell us: that the journey out of racism is tortuous for all concerned, that stereotypes are magnetic, that, in such a fraught relationship, every kindness is suspect. And still, healing is possible: We may fear one another, feel betrayed by one another, but the potential for solidarity, however battered, remains.
So Tommy J and Sally is finally a hopeful experience, one that appeals to our best instincts after first accessing our worst assumptions. And I’d even go further: I’d wager that this play can make a small but important difference in the consciousness of its spectators. That’s reason enough to see it during its short run in St. Petersburg.
The drama starts with a shocker: A young African-American man, Tommy J, breaks into the Manhattan pied-à-terre of Sally Hemmings, a famous white pop singer whose latest anthem is about racial harmony (even Bishop Tutu has praised it). He threatens and bullies her, warns her that she’s entered the hopeless position of victimhood, and seems on the verge of raping or killing her. But there’s an oddity: He also keeps insisting that her real name is Madeline Rosenberg, that she is, or once was, an ordinary Jewish girl who’s since had a nose job and reinvented herself, taking on the name of Thomas Jefferson’s black slave-mistress.
Further, he claims to have lived with this girl in her parents’ house, to have watched her fledgling attempts at songwriting, and to have gone to prison after she wronged him in some way. Pop diva Hemmings won’t have any of it: She insists, with some persuasiveness, that she’s never seen Tommy J before, and certainly never told him that she was his “sister.” But occasionally she appears to know more about Madeline Rosenberg than a total stranger would — or is she just guessing? And when, in her anger, she provokes and taunts her assailant, he backs down, even vomiting like a sensitive soul who can’t bear too much enmity.
Who is Tommy J, really, and who is, or was, Sally? And is it too late for them to make a gesture — even the smallest one — toward something like love?
The outstanding actor in the show is Magali Nass, who finally has a role as big as her talent. Her assignment is no easy one: We have to believe that under the greatest stress, Sally can mix anger with fear, brinksmanship with self-preservation. She also has to convince us that the question of her identity is no simple one, that she might have been Madeline Rosenberg, or someone much like her, before she became famous.
Reginald Robinson’s task as Tommy J is even more difficult: His character should be a blend of danger and vulnerability, rage and childlike yearning, and he should make us wonder at his sanity as he “remembers” Sally’s adolescence. But Robinson doesn’t manage all these contradictions at one time. He plays act one like a thug, act two like a saint, and to believe either act you have to ignore the other.
Craig Wallace’s direction is splendid, however: on Rich Agan’s attractive set, representing the bed area and kitchenette of a small loft, he finds the precise steps in a perilous dance of shifting dominance. And Bonnie Agin’s costumes, especially for chic Sally, are a further strong point in an exceedingly well-designed show.
Medoff’s play has a few weaknesses: Too much of act two is given to the Madeline/Tommy backstory, and there’s at least one brief moment when the author strays into sententiousness. Nonetheless, Tommy J and Sally is a powerful, resonant drama that should be seen not only by theater lovers but by anyone concerned with race relations in America. Black/white tensions are still very much alive in our national life, even with Barack Obama about to become President. A play like this one has something to contribute to the ongoing conversation. And it’s something that hasn’t been heard nearly enough. 

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