Michael Turrentine (top) and Londen Shannon in First Floor Theater’s production of ‘Sugar in Our Wounds.’ (Photo: Gracie Meier)
By Becky Sarwate
There’s something extraordinarily gut-wrenching about a slave narrative that invokes all of the worst features of America’s collective shame, set against the backdrop of an Emancipation Proclamation just months away from President Abraham Lincoln’s signature. So begins First Floor Theater’s eighth season debut production, the unflinching Sugar in Our Wounds, from playwright Donja R. Love.
Love’s urgent takeaway is clear: the moment is all one has, so seize it. We can never understand our own historical context as it’s lived, and permission to love freely and fiercely can’t be granted outside the self.
The powerful script, which premiered Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2018, drops the audience in on James (Michael Turrentine), a gentle young slave and part of a makeshift family toiling on a plantation in the Deep South (exact state undefined). The Civil War is nearing its bitter end, although James and his “people,” Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) and Mattie (Ashley Crowe), have no way of knowing this. What they do know, via a literate James who reads old newspapers during his infrequent leisure time, is that President Lincoln may soon sign a law freeing slaves from their formal subjugation. A glimmer of hope, and a prayer to the mystical old tree that seems tied to James’ destiny fortify the trio that divine justice is imminent.
Into this overworked, physically and emotionally abused, but tight-knit family walks Henry (Londen Shannon), a handsome and mysterious stranger with sexy qualities that command the attention of Mattie and James in similar ways. Mattie is keenly aware of the emotional and physical desire she feels in Henry’s presence. James, giving off more than a touch of pure, Christ-like goodness in the style of Melville’s Billy Budd, is slower to understand the nature of his attraction. In any case, after Henry’s arrival, a potentially dangerous sexual tension is introduced between the two men.
A dalliance with Mattie, after all, has the potential to produce another forced child laborer. From the perspective of plantation owner-overseer, that’s good economics. But an openly homosexual relationship between two black men? Well, that’s a biblical “abomination” – easy ideological cover for the assertion of white, patriarchal control. Although Caucasian men are never seen on stage, the character of Isabel (Grianne Ortlieb) serves as an aggregate of all that is racist and lustful determined to hang onto power. Her dehumanizing, condescending efforts to “educate” James have little to do with literacy and are instead an exercise in pathetic loneliness and petty despotism. Feelings cannot be dictated or owned, even if bodies can. This is the heartbreaking truth that drives the compelling drama of Sugar in Our Wounds.
With appropriately sparse scenic design from Joy Ahn, director and First Floor Theater company member Mikael Burke lets sound do the talking. In the improvised spiritual melodies composed by Aunt Mama, in the songs of the ancestors that waft from the mystical tree, and in the mundane sounds of life like snoring, laughter and sexual satisfaction – it’s within these pockets of auditory expression that the characters live. If the soul must be euthanized in the field for survival’s sake, memories and internal melodies are outside The Man’s reach.
Though Sugar in Our Wounds ends as it must, dictated by time and place, this First Floor Theater production is a worthy journey, supported by a gifted ensemble cast. Ms. Lockett turns in a perfect performance as the protective, wise Aunt Mama. Vaulting right over stereotype, Aunt Mama is no silent, benevolent sufferer. Instead, a lifetime of quiet subversion supports the counsel she shares with her three adopted children. In prose, poetry and song, Ms. Lockett serves as the connective tissue that unites past and present, the earthly and the divine.
As the brooding Henry, Mr. Shannon is all taciturn, cerebral confidence. It’s no stretch to imagine a night with him being worth the risk of discovery or death. The play simply doesn’t work without Mr. Shannon’s authentic, attractive rebelliousness.
With a running time of 100 minutes (no intermission), Sugar in Our Wounds demands relentless, dramatically rewarding stamina. Although the script is sprinkled with surprising doses of laugh-out-loud humor, the play is a tough but important watch.
Sugar in Our Wounds
The Den Theatre
4139 N Broadway, Chicago
Through November 23
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.