Inheritance is the word. TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever begins with its lead character, Sally, pulling a whiteboard out onto the stage. She writes the word inheritance for all to see.

“I’m trying to make sense of something that happened. That keeps happening?” she says to the audience.

Sally lets the audience know that, as the play goes on, they’ll be coming back to that word. While Sally’s name comes from Sally Hemings, the play’s Sally and TJ are not the historical figures who inspired them. TJ is not Thomas Jefferson, but a college dean. And in the play, now on stage at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, Sally is a college student who is trying to evade modern-day TJ’s inappropriate advances.

The distances between the Sallies and the TJs are so vast, that it’s easy to miss or even question their connections. But with reminders to consider inheritance, the audience can grapple with how the harassment that Sally goes through can be traced to violence Black women have experienced for centuries.

“I think at the core of my thinking about inheritance is that it’s a thing that people instantly connect with the idea of wealth, right?” said James Ijames, the South Philly playwright who penned TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever. “It’s a thing that you get that enriches your life. And I’m making the correlation between that kind of wealth that does that kind of work, and then the kind of wealth that we also get from our ancestors, which are these things that are unseen and you can’t put in a bank.”

This can look like many things, Ijames continued, including trauma and systemic oppression.

“It’s all subconscious, it’s all sort of built into the fabric,” said Ijames, lead artistic director at The Wilma Theater this season and an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University. “What’s the other stuff that you’re getting from [your folks], that you’re walking around with? Using at the store, or using at the bank, or using in your work life? These are also inheritances too.”

TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever introduces regional audiences to Sally and her friends — Harold, a student activist, and Pam and Annette, both campus tour guides. All are Black students at a fictional predominantly white institution, Commonwealth of Virginia University.

Ijames got inspiration for the play in 2017 while listening to the New York Times podcast Still Processing. It was an episode that analyzed the deadly events in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. Cohost Jenna Wortham, a University of Virginia alum, reflected on their experience in Charlottesville, noting: “On Valentine’s Day, there are all these signs that go up that say, like T.J. loves Sally.”

“And I was like, ‘That’s a play,’” remembered Ijames.

The playwright wrote a comedy. TJ is a creep and a performatively woke doofus. (He literally twerks.) Throughout the play, Black students take up Black dance traditions themselves, including tap, HBCU-style majorette dancing, and stepping. Pam, Annette and Sally step together in the play as members of the fictional sorority Beta Beta Epsilon.

In Theatre Horizon’s production, the action occurs primarily on one set, in front of a backdrop of sculpted monuments that you’d typically see at a prestigious college. The ways the characters code switch between the voices they’d use while leading a tour, while speaking to each other and while performing in a step show locates the characters more than any props or set design would.

The script leaves room for each production to come up with its own choreography and interpret the dance traditions in their own way. The stepping at Theatre Horizon feels traditional and true to how many groups step, down to the actors putting their individual swag on different movements. Local Norristown high schoolers portray the university marching band.

Sydney Banks, who plays Sally, said the play is physically heavy. She describes the weight of performing in scenes with TJ, followed by the freedom in later scenes to dance on her own terms: “Feeling uncomfortable, being put in situations that are so like tense and like your body is like, not knowing what to do, and not knowing where to go, feeling stuck, and then having the moments of being free and having these elaborate moves. Or throwing your body into the movement, and getting down, and feeling it deep.”

Lauren E. Turner, the play’s director, said that, through dance, the play defies conventional theatrical structures, while the characters themselves are discussing dismantling existing structures, like monuments on campus or oppressive systems.

“So many more people [now] understand the language that’s in this play, around these systems, around patriarchy, around white body supremacy culture,” said Turner, who is producing artistic director at the theater company No Dream Deferred NOLA. The term white body supremacy, coined by trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, considers how racism and racial trauma lives inside our bodies. Turner added: “But I don’t think that many people have gone beyond an intellectual understanding to fully embodied understanding of what this stuff means. And the play really drives home that you have to have an embodied understanding, not just an intellectual understanding.”

TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever first premiered in New York in early 2020. Ijames, who has previously won a Pew fellowship for playwriting, the National Arts Club’s Kesserling prize, and a Steinberg Playwright award, is a national star. Last year, his play Fat Ham, digitally produced by The Wilma, earned raves.

LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, measures that Ijames’ career has taken off because of how he shapes his characters: “His characters make you feel in a way that … has them linger with you.”

“You’re getting the lesson through your relationship to the characters. You’re not getting the lesson by a monologue that’s telling you what you’re supposed to get out of the show,” Miller-White explained, who said that Ijames’ writing made her think about people she knew, and rethink whether she could have listened better to them. “You feel like now you like to know a person from the situation and that has changed how you feel about it.”

TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever is a play where characters sometimes break the fourth wall, even taking moments to give attendees compliments or ask them a question. It makes the piece more interactive, but this also makes it clear that the issues impacting the characters are shared by the audience.

“I try not to think of myself as like, ‘Well, here’s the message!’ And I know that it does feel that way,” Ijames said with a laugh. “I do think a playwright should have something to say.”

And, without spoiling the play, what’s one of the things that Ijames had to say?

“This struggle of trying to become, you know, a more inclusive, more just, more liberated world is not as simple as holding hands and singing a song. It is work. It is painful,” he said. “It’s just like planting a garden — you got to tend to it.”