BWW Reviews: TOMMY J AND SALLY Face Off In Dueling Stereotypes

In his 1980 Tony Award-winning play, Children of a Lesser God, Mark Medoff revealed his keen understanding of the complexities and tensions in human relationships ~ in that instance between a speech therapist and a deaf cleaning woman at a school for the deaf.

Likewise, in his provocative Tommy J and Sally, now on stage at Black Theatre Troupe and directed by Janet Arnold, he raised the ante and cleverly applied a white hot scalpel to the racial divide.

As an allegory both of human bondage to ethnic stereotyping and of the quest for self-discovery and redemption, it is a challenging work to produce, primarily because of the demands it places on its two actors to navigate and sustain a mix of contrasting emotions.

In an aside before the real action of the play commences, Tommy declares that he is a prisoner of his skin, that his lifeblood is gone, that he needs to take revenge for the injustices he and his people have suffered. One might be led to believe that a social justice-seeking bomb thrower is on the loose, but the walls that Tommy wants to tear down have more to do with a betrayal he suffered when he lived with a Jewish family while he was in high school ~ specifically, at the hands of their daughter, Madeline, whom he now believes is the self-transformed nose-altered Sally Hemmings ~ "the hottest pop singer in America," "the Joan Baez of the new century."

To rectify the gnawing pain of that apparent betrayal, he breaks into Sally's pied-a-terre and holds her hostage ~ baiting, accusing, mocking, and threatening her, but always pulling back from the brink of physical violence. These are assaults of the spirit, aspersions about another's identity based on old stereotypes, remorse about a relationship gone awry. At some point, in her own defense, Sally must give as good as she gets, and as she pounds on him for the stereotypical failures of his race, he withers ~ and the tables turn. In the course of their battle, they begin to shed the skins that have defined them and reveal truths about themselves that may yet liberate them. Can there ever be a common ground that they can share, a meeting of the minds, a reconciliation?

Roosevelt Watts shines in his portrayal of Tommy J. It is a role that requires seamless shifts in mood, from sinister to vulnerable to raging to philosophical. Tommy is prodigious in his vocabulary, casting lines that are oratorical and piercing. He claims to be the son of a preacher man of fundamentalist dogma who made him learn a new word every day. Watts delivers the prosaic lines with authority, with a refined cadence reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson. The role is a remarkable challenge, and Mr. Watts has managed a home run.

As Tommy's prisoner within her own home, Sally must withstand the baiting, fight for her survival, hold fast to her claim of mistaken identity. It is a role that requires an equal level of nuanced performance and balancing of moods. Sarah Chapman's Sally must be as live a wire as Watts if, when they make contact, the requisite sparks are to fly. When it's her turn to hold the gun, she must convey a similar level of danger. When she self-deprecates and reveals herself as a false idol, having taken the path of least resistance and singing empty anthems, she must convey the appropriate pain. Ms. Chapman's performance falls short in this regard ~ good but not electric, intense but not convincing.

Once they have laid bare each other's vulnerabilities, they are (or may be) freer to define their place in the world.

This is a contest of wills and perceptions that is well worth seeing, not only for the mirror it places in front of all of us but also for its relevance in these days of racial turmoil.

Tommy J and Sally runs through December 14th at the Helen K Mason Performing Arts Center.

Photo credit to Laura Durant

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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