When Minnesotans say SLP, they generally mean St. Louis Park, the first-ring Minneapolis suburb. But in the theater world, SLP mostly refers to an eminence that might as well be her own municipality.
Playwright, screenwriter and bandleader Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play "Topdog/Underdog," is known for her probing poetry, imagination and often surprising interrogation of history. She continues her inquiry of the past with "Sally & Tom," which premieres Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
It is about a Black playwright, Luce (also plays Sally), and her white director partner, Mike (also plays Tom), who are working on a historical play called "The Pursuit of Happiness." The play-within-a-play orbits Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the trafficked teenager with whom he fathered many children. As the contemporary couple wrestle with putting on their show, the past surfaces in the present and the present drops into the past.
"What's that famous Faulkner quote, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past,'" asked Parks Tuesday before rehearsal. "This is about how the world was made, and what kind of world are we making."
The Guthrie, long known for championing the classics, welcomed the opportunity to host this world premiere, said artistic director Joseph Haj. The whole thing came about after he was contacted by Parks' agent, who also represents playwright Lynn Nottage.
"I read the play and was immediately taken by all of its complications and the brilliance of SLP's writing," Haj said.
Parks is playwright-in-residence at New York's Public Theatre, headed by Minnesota native Oskar Eustis and with whom the Guthrie is collaborating.
"I think what SLP is wrestling with is some really nuanced things in a world where we tend to put people in boxes," Haj said.
For much of our history, Jefferson was in one particularly revered box — a Founding Father who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the nation's third president.
"And he was a hell of a writer, too," Parks said.
But in recent years, the mythology has been punctured by the fact that he owned over 600 enslaved people. In fact, there has been a raft of recent works that have focused on the complicated relations between Jefferson and Hemings, who was half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha.
Did Jefferson and Hemings love each other?
Playwright Thomas Bradshaw's "Thomas and Sally," which premiered at the Marin Theatre in Mill Valley, Calif., in 2017, framed the question through two college students. Bradshaw was clear that his was a work of historical fiction.
The "35-year love affair" between Jefferson and Hemings also loomed large earlier in the 2005 musical "Sally and Tom (The American Way)" by Fred Newman and Annie Roboff.
Composer William Lavonis, too, teased out the question of love in his 2012 opera, "Tom and Sally in Paris."
Onscreen, there has been "Jefferson in Paris," starring Nick Nolte and Thandiwe Newton (1995) and the CBS miniseries "Sally Hemings, an American Scandal" (2000).
But Parks sees all the talk about love between Jefferson and Hemings as almost a sideshow.
"What is love, anyway?" asked Parks. "It ain't I'm giving you chocolates because it's Valentine's Day. It's been smalled-up by the industry. How can we have nuanced conversations about difficult things. How can we unpack traumatic things that happen."
Parks, who was encouraged to become a playwright by James Baldwin, is a history-maker as the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer for drama. But she doesn't feel trapped by history — her own or the nation's. Over 40 years, her work has ranged from experimental plays to TV adaptations to novels.
Currently, she is in the midst of three world premieres. "Topdog/Underdog," a play about two conflicted brothers, is in previews for a Broadway revival. On Sunday, she begins rehearsals for "Plays for the Plague Year," which premieres Nov. 16 at the Public. She also is writing songs for the stage adaptation of "The Harder They Come," the 1972 film by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff, which premieres at the Public soon.
In all of these works, she has a strong connection to history. And stories are her holy grail.
"I'm a servant of the most-high God. I'm not saying that in a religious sense — I'm respectful and embrace all religions," she said. "I'm here to sing the song."
'Sally & Tom'
Who: By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Steve Broadnax III.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 6.
Tickets: $20-$79. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.
Protocol: Masks required for all Sunday performances and encouraged for those Tue.-Sat.