(l to r) Chinaza Uche and Sheldon Best in ‘Sugar in Our Wounds.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Lindsay B Davis
When you enter New York City Center’s Studio at Stage II, where Donja R. Love’s profoundly moving and groundbreaking Sugar in Our Wounds is having its world premiere, you will be immediately taken in by Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design: a vast three dimensional tree planted firmly upstage, its branches extending toward the audience, leaves descending in weeping willow fashion.
The setting is summer 1862, and we are “somewhere down South” in the era of slavery, where the action takes place not only in the presence of this protective tree possessing supernatural qualities but also in small, dark slave quarters designated by scant pieces of furniture and two tin buckets, one for water and one for excrement.
We first meet James (Sheldon Best), a young, lithe black man and Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry) described as “older than God” as they talk under the tree, revealing that James comes from a long line of fathers who have been lynched, one by one going back to Jesus. James (played with a sweetness and sensitivity that captures your heart from the opening beat) is rightfully terrified that this could be his fate, too. When he reads in the newspaper that President Lincoln may soon sign a bill ending slavery, we know why he has such a strong sense of urgency.
Isabel (Fern Cozine in her Off-Broadway debut) has taught James to read but her good graces end there, as this plantation Southern belle is racist as well as sexually and physically abusive. Living with the teenage James and under Aunt Mama’s watchful eye is Mattie (Rachelle Stewart), slightly older in her 20s and described as having skin “so yellow the sun gets jealous” and scars on her face. Mattie’s mom was auctioned off after she was born.
When Henry (Chinaza Uche), an orphan seeking temporary refuge before hoping to reunite with his biological family arrives on the plantation, his exterior is tough and desire clear: to not give away his power to the white people who seek to take it by breaking up his family. Committed to loving Henry upon arrival, Aunt Mama declares, “We all gotsta get back ta our family. And til we do. We each otha family now.” With dogs barking in the close distance and the threat of danger palpable, Henry opts to stay.
This brings us to the theme that may get the most buzz but is only one component of this incredibly layered production, and that is the queer love story between Henry and James.
Sugar is part of a trilogy called The Love* Plays, which explores *Queer Love during pivotal moments in black history: slavery (Sugar in Our Wounds), the civil rights movements (Fireflies) and Black Lives Matter (In The Middle). To say these stories are undertold in American theater would be an understatement, but what makes this a must-see production is not just the boldness of the subject matter. It is, quite simply, a beautiful (albeit tragic) love story carried out by two completely dedicated actors who do not so much as tell the story as be the story.
The women in this play are also wonderful, starting with Stewart who plays Mattie with a post-traumatic stress victim’s tendency towards ebullience. Mattie lives in her imagination to protect herself from the pain of her reality and Stewart goes to all the necessary places to make Mattie’s awakenings and backstory more than a secondary plot. Berry’s Aunt Mama transcends time and place, sometimes delivering language that feels contemporary and at other times channeling the ancestors. With humor and resolute presence, she carries the play by being its consistent anchor of love, strength, and hope. Cozine’s portrayal of Isabel is awful enough to induce audience sneers but by design must be, not only because her one-dimensionality instructs us to pay more attention to the central characters and their stories, but so that we feel the intensity of the era’s white supremacy and ominous presence of a Master in the mansion.
The timeliness of this production cannot be overstated. Besides opening during NYC Pride and on Juneteenth evening (Emancipation Day), Sugar in Our Wounds premieres as the U.S. government enacts new policy separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. With comparisons being drawn to Holocaust-era Germany and the slave trade, we can look to Henry to convey the trauma of family separation:
So we runs. But we get caught. And ‘stead uh hangin’ us, day tear us apart. Dat feel worse than bein’ hanged, I imagine…
Despite the heavy subject matter and themes, Saheem Ali’s direction brings out humor, lightness, and relatable universality to the family dynamics, all enhanced by Darrell Grand Moultrie’s choreography to aid the scene transitions, Love’s desire to celebrate these characters and their stories rather than “dwell on their tragedy or otherness” is accomplished. Sugar in Our Wounds is simple, timeless, magical storytelling at its finest and a beautiful addition to the New York theater scene. It is what the world needs now.
Sugar in Our Wounds
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center – Stage II
131 West 55th Street, NYC
Through July 8, 2018
Lindsay B Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.