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Review: 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever' a Sharp Critique of Institutional Racism

by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 3, 2021
Dru Sky Berrian, Tah-Janay Shayoñe, and Sadiyah Dyce Stephens in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'
Dru Sky Berrian, Tah-Janay Shayoñe, and Sadiyah Dyce Stephens in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  (Source:SpeakEasy Stage Company)

What is institutional racism? Is it the trappings of a slaveholder past that linger around the campus of a Southern university? Is it the entrenched, reflexive cultural norms that grant some people instant and automatic authority while rendering others invisible and unheard? Is it a diffuse, ubiquitous social poison that contaminates social commonalities - government, services, law enforcement, faith - or is it an institution in and of itself, resistant to change and commanding the adherence of defenders?

In James Ijames' play "TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever," all those things seem to be true, to varying degrees, along with a strong dose of history - itself, perhaps, an institution, with its official interpretations and established narratives. The play's title refers to Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Heming, and its racial questions must, of necessity, extend to and include gender questions, since Jefferson fathered seven children with Heming, six of whom survived infancy.

TJ (Jared Troilo) is a modern-day equivalent of Jefferson, at least in the microcosm of the Virginia university where he's the Dean of Students. As the play gets underway we hear that the university is celebrating homecoming, and the theme is "In Days of Glory" - those days meaning pre-Civil War, and the glory being a distinctly antebellum sort, rooted in the social order and economic forces of slavery.

Sally (Tah-Janay Shayoñe) is a fellow employed by the Dean's office. Shortly after the two meet, TJ decides he's smitten with Sally, and his attentions to her quickly escalate to harassment. The more she rejects and resists him, the more desperately TJ pursues her, to the point of sending her unwanted texts and photos of his private parts.

The cast of the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  (Source:SpeakEasy Stage Company)

Others on the campus have their own problems with TJ, such as Harold (Jordan Pearson), an openly gay activist looking to change the school's culture. As fervently as TJ pursues Sally, he seeks to avoid Harold, but Harold won't be ditched, deflected, or daunted; in one scene Harold pursues TJ across campus, with TJ's larkish boasts that Harold won't catch him soon degenerating into near-panic at how fast Harold can run. At a different point, the two state their positions to the accompaniment of a tap dance routine.

Similar in tone and satiric intent are the cheerleading and step performances by Sally and her two friends Pam (Dru Sky Berrian) and Annette (Sadiyah Dyce Stephens), who don't see why Sally can't just get TJ fired. Part of the reason for this is Sally doesn't want TJ to be punished, necessarily; she just wants him to leave her alone so that she can pursue her education. But part of the reason, too, is that just as there's institutional racism ingrained in the university, so too is there institutional sexism, and part of that is a "boys will be boys" ethos that leads to a situation in which Sally's loud protests draw no attention from anyone else in the administration building, and her attempt to report TJ's behavior to a counselor is met with feigned incomprehension and then determined inaction.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the work is directed by Pascale Fiorestal, who has plenty of ideas for how to successfully put Ijames' ideas on stage and how to translate those theatrical ideas to a streaming presentation. The play doesn't have a set; it's dropped into a black void (a disconnected setting that feels suitable enough, especially in the scenes that involve Sally trying to fend off or reason with TJ) or else set against static, somewhat idealized environments: A cavernous library, grand in scale and decor; a sweeping yard in front of a monumental school building (it looks like the lawn of the Harvard Law School, actually); a towering wall that's covered in heroic portraits of white men with white hair clad in white lab coats.

Tah-Janay Shayoñe in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  (Source:SpeakEasy Stage Company)

The format provides opportunities for more dynamic visuals. At one moment we see TJ's addled perception of Sally, and it's a hallucinatory - and uncomfortably exploitative - fantasia of her as a cheerleader dancing seductively to a marching band. Other touches are more light-hearted, though they serve a crucial narrative function: The play's frequent "footnote" commentaries are delivered by images of actors that blink into the screen's lower right-hand corner, not unlike a footnote in a book.

There's also the way in which the use of static backgrounds makes it possible to create a cut-and-paste collage effect, which is in keeping with the idea of historical people and events being overlain onto our contemporary world in order to point out just how close to the surface historical injustices of one group's assumed ownership of others remain, even now.

Less successful is the presentation's editing, which includes too much dead air. Live on stage, the pacing would make complete sense; on a screen, however, one finds oneself expecting cinematic conventions to hold true, and in some ways they do. But the ability to, say, switch between perspectives or accent a moment with a judicious close up, also comes with the chance to compress moments and blend different kinds of cues. We can hear one action taking place while seeing a reaction to it, for instance, rather than needing two visual cues to be put together in what feels like an elongated (and auditorially underserved) beat.

Speaking of the auditory component, the production is plagued by a technical problem with the sound mixing; some dialogue sounds distant and muffled; some music cues (there are some moments when we hear a marching band) are too loud, particularly after the viewer has turned up the volume in order to hear the actors.

But the play's themes, playful energy, and biting wit come through loud and clear throughout. The cast (most of them Boston Conservatory students) bring a fresh, youthful energy to the production, and aptly so, since all of them but Troilo are playing students. As for Troilo, his TJ can be downright creepy, but he manages to find deeper layers, some of them immature but some, too, that have a youthful and uncertain sensibility.

This is important, since the play's other great theme is one of forgiveness and compassion in service of a better future. If Sally seems unusually generous toward TJ, it's because she knows something about him the cast and director know, too, and want us to see: TJ is culpable of many unpardonable things, but a lot of them stem from a lack of knowledge about, and security in, himself. He's not beyond redemption.

Another way to put it might be to note that becoming wise and just is more than a matter of accumulating years (or being handed cultural capital as a birthright). It's also a matter of being willing to do the work.

"TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever" streams through May 13. For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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