Can troubling moments in history be used for good? Philadelphia-based playwright, director, and educator James Ijames seems to think so. He is deeply interested in history and “how we’re constantly reliving, revisiting, and reimagining [it].”
On Friday, SpeakEasy Stage Company will begin streaming Ijames’s play “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” a reimagining of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In Ijames’s narrative, which unfolds on a college campus amid beauty pageants and step shows, the contemporary Sally (Tah-Janay Shayoñe) isn’t enslaved. However, the racial and power dynamics that surface because of TJ’s (Jared Troilo) unwanted advances are very real.
Instead of Zoom theater, the show’s director Pascale Florestal opted for a fully staged production that has been filmed. Florestal prefers to develop “theatrical experiences that shed light on the narratives we rarely see on stage,” according to her bio. Recently, she was the assistant director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s “Until the Flood,” a filmed version of Dael Orlandersmith’s play that investigates how the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 at the hands of police affected the community of Ferguson, Mo.
Through his work, Ijames — a 2019 Kesselring Prize winner for “Kill Move Paradise” — examines and seeks ways to eliminate racism, misogyny, patriarchy, and white supremacy, he explains. I spoke to Ijames recently about what freedom looks like, how Sally handles TJ, and what theater has taught him.
Q. In a review for “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” the writer said the New York audience was left at a loss. There was no final bow, and the audience had to contend with what they’d seen and with the call to action. How will virtual audiences be pushed to participate?
A. In New York, the director decided not to have a bow, and I thought it was brilliant. And we don’t get that in a virtual setting. There’s a point in the play where there’s a real moment of audience participation. I’m curious what [SpeakEasy is] going to do with that. In virtual theater, sometimes it’s hard to draw people in because you’re not breathing the same air. It’s dangerous now for us to breathe the same air. It’s so essential to the theater. But I hope people feel implicated by it. Not accosted, not necessarily indicted, but we all are moving through this world together. I can’t ignore the oppression of someone beside me because it’s not happening directly to me.
Q. When a theater is staging your work, and you’re not involved in the process, do you wonder if the essence of what you’re trying to get across will get lost?
A. I have a lot of trust in the field. I was an actor, and in many ways I write for actors first. In a way, I am telling the actor I trust you, the choice you made, it’s the right choice. The feeling that you’re feeling right now, it’s the right feeling.
In a script, I’ll describe an idea of something. For example, I’m working on a play where I explain what it’s like to hear sound coming from one room to another. I say the sound from the other side of the room pulls up in the space between the floor and the door. That gives the actor, sound designer, and director a lot of room to ask: “What does that mean to us? What do we believe about how sound moves?” Those are things an actor gets to imagine. I don’t have to tell them that. Actors are brilliant.
Q. I read that while you are writing the play, you asked people what the world would look like if we all were free. So, how would you answer that question?
A. If you’d have asked me two weeks ago, I probably would have had some hyper-intellectual academic response. I don’t know what it would look like if we were all free because I don’t know if humanity has any record of a moment when that was true. I think we have to imagine it. I believe deeply that my ancestors are in and around me all the time. And I feel like they’re constantly whispering into my ear the tools for me to become freer. Maybe that’s the answer: We listen to the people who sit up at night in our kitchens after we’re asleep and the house is dark, and they’re holding vigil to make sure we’re OK.
Q. What have you learned about yourself and the world through theater?
A. I’ve learned that I contain so much more than I thought I did when I was 14 and that my gut is never lying to me. Theater has taught me that failure is not an endpoint. It’s part of a continuum. Rehearsal is a beautiful negotiation with failure as an inspirational tool.
Q. The play is inspired by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Can you talk to me about how Sally fights back and how she’s able to express her freedom?
A. There are several places in the play where she’s got the most power; even if structurally, it seems that she doesn’t have any. She has knowledge that TJ doesn’t have, and it throws him off. He doesn’t know how to react to her. The most significant way I’ve given her agency is that she tells us the story and walks us through what happened. The greatest sin of history, I think, is that the people who win get to write the narrative. This story is from Sally’s point of view.
Q. What draws TJ to Sally? Does he feel he can have her because of his privilege?
A. Absolutely. I’ve seen people be irresponsible with the story of these two. And there are plays that exist that almost hint that it was a love affair. Why don’t we call it what it is? We feel this need to create a narrative around what was essentially rape.
This play never gets to the place of sexual violence. The abuse is still there. The unwanted compliments are still there. The inappropriate looks are still there. In the play, Sally is almost treating him as a lab experiment. She’s like: What happens if I withhold my attention from this person completely? Will he go away? No, he won’t go away if I do that. I think many times women are making these negotiations with their bosses, co-workers, the person who comes in to fix the air conditioning in their apartment. So I wanted to examine that without creating many scenes that might retraumatize women in the audience.
Q. What’s Sally’s support system like?
A. Well, she’s in a black sorority. I’m not Greek, but my mother and her sister are. I grew up around Deltas (Delta Sigma Theta) and Qs (Omega Psi Phi) and Kappas (Kappa Alpha Psi) my whole life. But what I saw in that was a fierce loyalty, respect, and holding space for people that have been through an experience that you also understand. Her two sorority sisters are her backbone. She has a support system of people who will put their skin on the line to protect her, and she would do the same for them.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
TJ LOVES SALLY 4 EVER
At SpeakEasy Stage Company, April 30-May 13. Tickets: $30, www.speakeasystage.com