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Sugar in Our Wounds

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 19, 2018

Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Chinaza Ucheas,
Stephanie Berry, and Sheldon Best
Photo by Joan Marcus

Upstage center in Donja R. Love's Sugar in Our Wounds is, as the Playbill says, "a tall, tall tree." Arnulfo Maldonado has designed it to a fare-thee-well, a massive willow with a trunk the size of a conversation pit and branches that drip beguilingly from the rafters, so that when several characters declare that it stretches all the way up to heaven, you can understand their believing that. It's gorgeously lit, by Jason Lyons, spilling intricate leafy shadows across City Center Stage II. Also, the tree sings and talks. In fact, it won't shut up.

It calls to James (Sheldon Best), a smart, able-bodied slave in 1862, singing out the names of his forefathers, most of whom were hanged on it. It calls to Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry), the feisty-sassy-loving old gal we've seen in dozens of other plays and the closest thing James has to a mother, as near the tree's roots are buried the 33 children she bore decades ago, none of whom survived. It calls to Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who lost her relatively comfy job in the plantation house when Isabel (Fern Cozine), her ill-tempered young mistress, started slapping her around. And eventually it calls to Henry (Chinaza Uche), the strapping runaway slave who hides there and discovers surprising feelings in his heart.

In short, quite a lot happens beneath those leaves, including some August Wilsonesque mystical-spiritual reveries that tend to annoy those of us who don't gravitate naturally toward mystical-spiritual reveries. But Sugar in Our Wounds fairly drips with them, leaving an otherwise pretty interesting Civil War drama weighted down by ethereal voices and visions it doesn't need.

Note that Love's program bio describes him as "an Afro-Queer playwright, poet and filmmaker," and you'll sense that this one will tread into territory most Civil War dramas wouldn't go near. For Henry, while more than willing to be seduced by the lonely Mattie, who eventually carries his child, is also drawn to James, the first person to show him kindness and guidance enough to relieve him of the emotional sickness he's carrying from being separated from his kin. Soon Henry, a man of few words, is kissing James. And soon Henry, James, Mattie, and Aunt Mama are all given to understand that what this is is love.

That's an intriguing premise. In their small slave lives, same-sex longings would have been simply unheard of, and if any of them ever read Leviticus, clearly they forgot 18:22. But Aunt Mama reassures James that he has finally figured out who he is and that's a beautiful thing, and "don't care how the body look, just care what the heart say." That's how Love's dialog goes, in that folksy-down-home patois that's sometimes predictable (you can hear Henry say, "This is the first time I gets to just . . . be," before he says it), but is also poetic and musical.

These are simple people, and that goes double for Isabel, whom Cozine is unable to invest with anything beyond the customary spoiled-white-girl shrieks and smugness. Isabel indulges in a pleasure-me-Mandingo moment with Henry, who resists, sending the plot down roads that will not turn out well, as Henry dashes off to escape rape charges and James is left inconsolable. Yet, despite the ensuing tragedy, and it's as persuasive as it is brutal, Mattie and Aunt Mama are left to philosophize quietly beneath that tree, a testament to—the unimpeachable survival instincts of the downtrodden, I guess, but their placidity is a bit hard to swallow, much as we want to believe in their spirituality and good faith.

For slaves, they sure spend a lot of time lazing around that willow, spouting bald exposition ("You always been a learnin' boy" and "You gots a sweetness to you that make you special" and such) and listening to the crickets, nicely conveyed by Palmer Heffernan's delicate sound design. The actors are fine, with Berry's seen-it-lived-it Aunt Mama displaying a hardiness and quirkiness beyond what Love has written for her, and Uche's handsome Henry a still water who runs compellingly deep. Saheem Ali's direction is affectionate and to the point, and Love has even managed to leaven this inescapably dreadful time and place in American history with some unexpected dashes of humor. Sugar in Our Wounds has a little bit of everything, and, maybe if it didn't lean so hard on those mystical branches yammering their ancestral secrets, it would have a little bit more.

Sugar in Our Wounds
Through July 8
The Studio at Stage II - Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
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