Pascale Florestal on the Hilarity - and Historical Forces - of 'TJ Loves Sally for Ever'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 30, 2021

Pascale Florestal
Pascale Florestal  (Source:Vanessa Leroy)

James Ijames' work often uses humor and fantastical narratives to interrogate historical forces around race, and many of his plays also contain LGBTQ elements. Those things are true of his play "TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever," which is being produced as a streaming presentation the SpeakEasy Stage Company.

In the play, TJ — short for Thomas Jefferson, a sort of contemporary reflection and namesake of the third U.S. president — is a Dean of Students at a historical Southern university. Sally, an undergrad, works for TJ; she shares the name of Sally Heming — a slave with whom Jefferson fathered seven children (one of whom died at birth).

It's from this highly symbolic setup that Ijames looks at issues of white male privilege and the problems women in general have when it comes to dealing with men in the workplace, at school, and in other places in life in which men attempt exercise inappropriate control over women's prospects, movements, and bodies. As the title says, TJ (Jared Troilo) "loves" Sally (Tah-Janay Shayoñe) — only, does he? TJ is obsessed with Sally, to the point of making overtures to her, sending her explicit photos, and never hearing her when she tells him that she's not interested and to back off. He even implies that a young women in her position could benefit from the sort of "friendship" he's offering her. It feels less like affection or even desire on TJ's part than an impulse — unexamined and unearned — to exert ownership over her.

Rounding out the cast of characters are Sally's friends Pam (Dru Sky Berrian) and Annette (Sadiyah Dyce Stephens), two young women confident in their autonomy and authority over their own lives, and Harold (Jordan Pearson), a young gay man looking for the university to acknowledge and address symbols of racism that persist in the culture of the campus. As much as TJ pursues Sally, he attempts to avoid Harold; meantime, Pam and Annette would like to see TJ pay for his infractions against Sally.

EDGE had the opportunity to chat with the production's director, Pascale Florestal — who describes herself as "a Haitian-American queer Black woman" — about the play's historical and contemporary resonances — and about bringing the show to audiences through a combination of stagecraft and filmic technique.

Sadiyah Dyce Stephens, Dru Sky Berrian, and Tah-Janay Shayoñe in 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  

EDGE: How did you come to direct this show?

Pascale Florestal: [SpeakEasy Stage Company Producing Artistic Director] Paul Daigneault reached out to me. I've worked with him before on other plays at SpeakEasy. I read it, and after the first pass I was enthralled — I was like, "I have to do this play."

I think so much of the humor and the realness of the characters, especially the students, really resonated with me, and I'm a sucker for plays that use humor and theatricalization to bring us into the world that we are living in today and address the issues that we are constantly seeing, and that we are constantly putting under the rug.

EDGE: Three of the cast are currently students at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Are you looking for them to bring that student energy into the production?

Pascale Florestal: Yeah! It was such a great opportunity that we were partnering with the Boston Conservatory on this show because of its relevance, because the point of the show is surrounding students. It felt very real for them; it felt like they had the opportunity to live and just describe the things they go through themselves on campus, not only their classrooms but in campus life. I definitely know they were able to access those experiences that they've been going through to bring those characters to life, and I think that made the process so much more fruitful, and so much of an opportunity to speak to these real moments that not only happen in this play, but every day.

EDGE: You are also part of We See You White American Theater, which was an open letter written last June calling for greater accountability and representation in the theater world, and which is also now a movement. Can you say a little about that?

Pascale Florestal: I'm not a part of the group that created it; I'm one of the many artists that signed and/or co-signed the letter that they created and put out last summer. I'm privileged to be associated with them. There are people on this list I have dreamed of working with, so to just know that they also feel the same issues I do was just an amazing feeling, and I hope to one day see the change is happening, slow increments as it is.

I think so many of us in the theater world, especially Black theater artists, have been looking for this kind of accountability. It felt completely aligned with who I am as an artist, and also someone who uses her art as activism. I think it's important to what I do — it's inherent in my work. I've always felt that my work is a social justice tool, so I was happy to keep it going.

Tah-Janay Shayoñe in 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  

EDGE: There's an intersectionality that this play embraces and dwells in, talking about historical issues and racial issues, but it's also talking about gender issues. Black bodies are very much a topic of the moment, and so are female bodies. Was this also something that drew you to the play?

Pascale Florestal: For sure. I think Malcolm X said it best: "The Black woman is the most undervalued human being in the world." They are at the bottom of the totem pole. To see the play speak to this experience made me even more excited to bring it to life, because I think it's important to understand that intersectionality.

And my other favorite thing that we see in this play is the character of Harold, and his intersectionality of being a queer person. All those intersections are so important when we're thinking about these issues and how they affect not just a community, but a larger demographic that can have these several intersections and will make them not the monolith we continue to perpetuate — whether that's in theater, or film, or TV.

EDGE: Do you feel that there's a common source for these abuses of power? Is it a matter of people with power looking at other people as property? Or as simply wanting to subjugate everyone around them?

Pascale Florestal: I think it's a combination of both. There's a line that Sally says in the play when she's talking about the collateral damage of slavery, of this ownership of Black bodies, and how it reverberates through history as this idea of ownership of other people.

I think we, as people, don't realize that. I have a lot of friends who are white, and it wasn't until those moments that they experienced it with me that they could see that ownership that white people, mostly — or that people of power — can continue to put on to people of color, especially Black people, and they don't even realize it. I think when you're put in a place of power it's easy, especially in the way that our country works, [when] to have power is to be all knowing and at the top.

I think those unconscious biases are real, and we don't realize them until we see them in our faces, or see ourselves do them. Until that happens, for a lot of people, they move in this space of, "Oh, I'm not doing that." But until you see that, you don't recognize the small ways that your life and that the country has structured itself to make you be in that place of power.

Tah-Janay Shayoñe and Jordan Pearson in 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  

EDGE: You mentioned Harold, who is an activist who wants to see symbols of racism on campus addressed— for example, the names of slaveholders that are on the buildings. He runs up against TJ, who doesn't want to hear it from him, and the two of them have a wonderful moment when they're debating this while they're tap dancing. James is mocking the way that we dance around these issues in American life.

Pascale Florestal: That's one of my favorite moments in the play. It's almost like a tennis match, in a way; that's how I was treating this moment, like an investigation of this constant back and forth between the two, but the need to listen and confront never really happens on TJ's part. So often, especially in America, we are so scared to confront that history and really understand what that means for us, and how we have to change. I think of countries like Germany, which has confronted what it means to have been through the Holocaust, to have created such torment and such trauma for a body of people, and to recognize what that means for them to move forward.

We haven't gotten there in America. I don't know when we will. I think there is clearly a push; there are a lot of people who are doing that work. But it isn't easy to confront our history and understand how much of it we have been complicit in. And I think that's the work I'm hopeful this play will ask people to do, and really look at themselves after they're watched this and think, "What am I complicit in that I've just been okay with letting go?"

Because that's the part of the problem. People don't think that complicitness is going to cause anything, or be as big as killing a body, but it is. That silence does equal death, and I think until we are able to stand up and recognize that, we are going to just keep being in this cycle and wondering, "Why are these bodies continuing to be killed? Why are people of color continuously marginalized, and why can't they get out?" I think that's a big question the audience thinks about: "How do I confront this racism in my life?" Because it is inherent; it's something that we can't get away from. We have to confront it in order to move past it.

EDGE: The flip side of those questions is, "Why do the perpetrators of these things keep perpetrating?" That force in history takes so many disguises, like Georgia right now with its attempts to suppress voters in the name of "election integrity."

Pascale Florestal: Yeah, and I think that's the thing. It's sad, because there has been progress; we have made it to a certain point. When I've talked about this play, my favorite thing people ask me is, "What do you want the audience to get from this?" I want them to really look inward, because I think it's very easy to look out at the world and see that the world is doing, and want to change the world. That takes a lot of time, a lot of work, and not to say it's not worth it, but it does start with yourself. Like, understanding where those unconscious biases that you have, where do they come from? And how do I stop them when I'm encountering a moment with a person I may not be used to — whether they are of color, whether they are queer, whether they are just different from me.

Jared Troilo and Tah-Janay Shayoñe in 'TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever'  

EDGE: TJ and Sally are not reincarnations of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Heming; they are not transported through time; but they are very much a strong echo of something that symbolizes that abusive relationship.

Pascale Florestal: Mm-hmm, and I think what's easy to forget. We love to be nostalgic of the past, but I think there is something in [questioning], "What is that inheritance?" I think that's my favorite thing about this play; when we talk about an inheritance, it's not the things we physically inherit, but the way these things we had no idea of in the past could reverberate in the future. You can't escape the past, but we must confront it and be okay with it and understand how we move past it.

I love what you said about how TJ and Sally are not reincarnated versions of the past, but there is something about that. I think a lot about myself as a woman of color; what does it mean when I have children to name them after [influential people from the past]? I would love one day for my child to be named Simone after Nina Simone, or Langston after Langston Hughes. But what does that inheritance mean when you have a name like that? I think about that a lot; my name is Pascale, and sometimes people think about Blaise Pascal the mathematician, or Adam Pascal the performer. And what does that mean when we inherit these things from people we may never have had connections with, and how does that affect who we are and how the world sees us?

When you have a specific name or a specific characteristic, the world wants to put a pre-description on how you're supposed to be. If you're not that way, then what happens to you and your identity? That's another thing that Sally talks about as well — this idea of being a young woman of color, especially a Black woman, and being so dedicated to her education, and there's a moment when TJ talks about the importance of integration, and how integration not only helps Black students but white students. But it's not the responsibility of Black students to help white students be better, be more accepting of other races. But it is inherited, because there is no structure for people, especially white people, to understand how their unconscious biases are creating issues, and really making it harder for us to just live.

Playwright James Ijames  (Source: Kathryn Raines)

EDGE: The playwright, James Ijames, actually went out and asked people to describe the ideal bright future they would love to come to some day. How do you feel about that bright future? What would take for us to get there — and are we on track for that?

Pascale Florestal: We have been on track, but we have gotten off track. I think that's just part of the journey. I don't know what that future looks like, and I think for me to try to imagine it — I don't want to say it's not there, but I think it's so hard for me in this moment to think about the future when I'm so caught up in the present. There is so much happening now that my idea of a future is, if I had to summarize it, it's an absence of fear. The actress who plays Sally did a panel and she said that, and that stuck me a lot. And Nina Simone said the same thing many years ago: "Being free is just absence of fear."

EDGEThis production has to be put on film, because we still can't meet in a common space and enjoy live theater. When you were thinking about how to put that experience in a streaming format or a filmed format, how did that change your conception of how to put the production together and how to present it?

Pascale Florestal: It changed everything about it. It did help me to really lean in more to the theatricality of it, because we didn't have the space of the theater, and that moment of being in the theater, to elevate that space. So there were parts of me that were preparing to film a movie, but also do a movie theater - or, as I tell myself a "captured theater" — experience. With this medium I'm able to make sure that the audience sees this moment, and sees it in a specific way. That's been so exciting for me as a director, because that's what I love to do. I want to elevate those moments and get the audience to see things that I got to see because I've been with the play for so long. You still can feel that it's a play, but there's that movie feel because it's on film.

I'd love to see this play done in a theater one day, and that would be a whole different experience. But it's exciting — I'm excited for so many people to see it, not just the 120 people who fit into the seats for that one night.

EDGE: Could you be tempted into movies after this experience?

Pascale Florestal: Oh, heck yes, I'm more than tempted. It's honestly been a nice little blessing, because I think there was a lot of fear moving into this world. There's been a large transition of playwrights moving into writing rooms for TV shows; Suzan-Lori Parks wrote the screenplay for the Billie Holiday movie that just came out ["The United States vs. Billie Holiday"]. I was lucky enough to work with Liesl Tommy when she directed "Top Girls" [for the Huntington Theatre Company], and she's made a big move to TV herself — she directed the "Respect" movie about Aretha Franklin.

And I love TV and film. That was my introduction to performance and theater, so I'm happy to figure out what that next move is. Why not?

"T.J. Loves Sally 4 Ever" streams from April 30 — 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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