After a scene in “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” in which a Black research assistant is sexually harassed by a white college dean while he warbles “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” she looks into the camera and addresses the audience in her capacity as narrator.
“To be honest, I am theatricalizing this [expletive] a bit,” she says. “But. This is just one solid kick ball change away from what really happens. Daily. So, in other words: Suspend your disbelief.”
Those three words are the key to fully entering any theatrical experience, of course. But another three words, albeit unspoken, also pulse beneath this mordant and inventive satire by James Ijames: Examine your assumptions.
Ijames has reimagined the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, placing it in a present-day context while holding up a cracked mirror that reflects a few larger truths about the legacy of racism. Namely, that it can pulse beneath all manner of daily interactions, can be central to imbalanced power structures, and is often embedded in the institutions in which many rah-rah types take unexamined pride.
Quite literally embedded. None-too-subtly functioning as an allegory for America, the university in Virginia where “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” takes place was founded by a slave holder and contains dozens of buildings commemorating slave owners or Confederate soldiers. Looming over the action is a wall of portraits of white men in lab coats.
Filmed without an audience at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End, “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” is being presented online by SpeakEasy Stage Company in partnership with Boston Conservatory at Berklee. The production is directed by Pascale Florestal, whose adroit touches include the incorporation of footage of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol into the hectic flow of onstage events.
Sally is portrayed by Tah-Janay Shayoñe with a stage-seizing confidence that’s all the more impressive considering she’s still a student at the Conservatory. (So are Dru Sky Berrian and Sadiyah Dyce Stephens, who play Sally’s sorority sisters.) TJ is played by Jared Troilo, who commits himself entirely to a role unlike any he’s played before, tweaking his usual charisma to a creepy edge.
As we watch “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” Ijames wants us to consider the fraught concept of “inheritance.” In fact, Sally inscribes that word on a whiteboard at the start of the production. Later, she speaks of the way strangers touch her hair without her permission “because they inherited a sense of ownership over my body.”
That is clearly the view of the middle-aged TJ. At their first meeting, he surveys Sally in a manner that is both predatory and proprietary. Notwithstanding TJ’s buffoonish aspects (including a ludicrous burst of twerking), the dean and his sense of entitlement pose a danger to Sally.
At times, the past bleeds into the present, and at other times the line gets blurry between reality and hallucination. Sally keeps having a dream that she is an enslaved person on a plantation, carrying a tray of Jell-O shots. In one scene, Sally and her friends appear, attired in antebellum gowns, as contestants in a homecoming queen pageant. Hosting the pageant is none other than TJ, dressed like a Confederate general.
Director Florestal sustains a bursting physicality throughout the SpeakEasy production. At one point, TJ and a Black student activist named Harold (Jordan Pearson) run in place at full tilt as the dean tries to avoid a charged conversation; at another, the two engage in a tap-dance battle as TJ tries to rationalize nostalgia for the university’s antebellum past.
It is Harold who spray-paints the words “built by slaves” on that university wall featuring all those lab-coat-wearing white eminentos. An act that amounts to a concise rebuttal, it drives home one of the key messages of “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever”: Creating a new world requires dismantling the old one — and that begins with correcting the record.
TJ LOVES SALLY 4 EVER
Play by James Ijames. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Presented online by SpeakEasy Stage Company in partnership with Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Through May 13. Tickets $30. www.SpeakEasyStage.com