A Tale of Queer Love and Ancestral Voices
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230
Performances: April 20-May 14, 2022.
Ticket Prices: $30-35; $18 for Preview nights; $10 for Students.
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccine or recent negative PCR test results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.
Just as every now and then someone says, does, or creates something so wonderful that I enviously wish I had done it. Similarly, every now and then someone creates a play, poem, or story that is so unique or so wonderful that I wonder why I never thought of or heard of the idea before. Sugar in Our Wounds by Philadelphia-based Afro-Queer playwright, poet, and filmmaker Donja R. Love is a prime example of this type of work. Rescheduled from 2020, you know, when that little thing called The Pandemic stopped by, Sugar in Our Wounds was well worth the wait. Set on a plantation in the summer of 1862, during the Civil War, “somewhere down South, by a tall, tall tree,” Sugar in Our Wounds examines the intersection of freedom and love.
“Ain’t no roamin’ the world, for a weak nigger. – Henry
An elder, Aunt Mama, and her makeshift family, James and Mattie, occupy a cabin on a plantation that has a striking feature – a mystical whispering tree so tall no one can see the top. Generations of enslaved people have been hung from this tree, but James is determined this particular generational curse will stop with him. James is smart. He keeps his head down – both literally and figuratively – and follows the rules – except for one. The master’s daughter, Isabel, sneaks down to the cabin periodically to teach James how to read. She’s bored, because her husband is away fighting the war, and predictably, at some point, like Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament, she begins to take a dangerous interest in the only available men around, but that’s not the real story here.
The real story is about love, across time and generations, and involves a young stranger who arrives and is accepted by Aunt Mama and her little family. Mattie, who also happens to be the master’s daughter, is in a precarious position, trusted by no one. Although we never see or hear from other enslaved people on the plantation, we know there are others, but only Aunt Mama and James feel safe in the company of Mattie, who like many others in her situation, is not welcome in either of the worlds she straddles. So of course, Mattie is attracted to this able-bodied stranger, Henry, but we soon find out that Henry, while he does not entirely rebuff Mattie, is far more interested in James than he is in Mattie.
“The darker you is, the more questions you got.” – also Henry
There are so many significant details in Sugar in Our Wounds that it would be nearly impossible to notice them all on just one viewing. The show opens with projections of legs and feet, photos on the rocks and trees, the “strange fruit” many of us were first introduced to by Billie Holiday’s recording of the mournful song of the same name. The tree hums and whispers, and James and Aunt Mama can hear it and communicate with it, with the ancestral spirits who reside in or around it and who use it to teach and warn their descendants. One notices a fancy chair that seems out of place in the little cabin, that is sparsely furnished with a tiny communal bed, shared by the three occupants, an all-purpose that serves as a seat or a table, and a bucket whose aroma Isabel finds offensive. The chair, of course, belongs to Isabel. Aunt Mama refuses to keep the bucket (aka chamber pot) outside because it is a precious commodity and might be stolen by nearby residents – another way we know this little family is not alone on this plantation. At one point there is an authentic feeling ring shout for the upcoming freedom. But there were also a few moments that seemed out of time and place. Sometimes the men are barefoot, and sometimes they wear shoes – and socks. Would enslaved young men have owned socks? During one visit to teach James to read the bible Isabel says the slop bucket smells “funky” and moments later she to James, “you blow me away.” The Oxford dictionary says the word “funky” originated in the late 17th century, so maybe it would have been used, and idiomorigins.org says “blow me away” phrases date back to the 16th century. Later, James says, “Don’t act new!” It seems people were saying something similar back in the day – as far back as the 1560s. Shakespeare even had a variation, “fire-new.” Both “brand new” and “fire-new” meant fresh from the fire. Who knew?
THE SPIRIT OF LOVE
The cast, the story, the execution of this production more than just a play, more than a love story. It felt like a work of love that was more than just acting, but more like a spiritual offering. Dorothy Dee D. Miller inhabited the persona of Aunt Mama like an act of faith, as if she did not just choose to act this role, but as if she HAD to share this role. Jónel Jones, whom I had recently seen as a scammer in a TheatreVCU production of Intimate Apparel took on a quite different role here as the hero, giving a strong yet gentle, nuanced performance that lingered some time after the final bows. Duron Marquis Tyre as Henry, the mysterious new-comer similarly maintained a balance of mystery, danger, and tenderness. Tyra Huckaby maintained a relatively low-key supporting role until the end, when the seed she was carrying elevated her to a place of prominence as the last remaining hope for the future, while Charlotte Grace Smith was a necessary but negligible presence – not because she wasn’t good enough but because Sugar in Our Wounds wasn’t about her.
Director Lucretia Marie did an excellent job, creating, maintaining, and drawing the audience into this mystical world in a way that educated, entertained, and enlightened all at once. The pacing, the acting, the setting, the atmosphere, all worked together to create that magic that every show aims for but few actually achieve. Sugar in Our Wounds is one of the most memorable and moving shows I’ve seen in recent memory, and I hope to have a chance to see it again in the future to see if it hits the same.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS
Written by Donja R. Love
Directed by Lucretia Marie
James ……………………………………. Jónel Jones
Aunt Mama …………………………… Dorothy “Dee D.” Miller
Isabel ……………………………………. Charlotte Grace Smith
Mattie ………………………………….. Tyra Huckaby
Henry …………………………………… Durron Marquis Tyre
For Isabel – Juliette Aaslestad
For Aunt Mama – Sharalyn Bailey
For Mattie – Ayana Flowers
For Henry – Calvin Graves
For James – Makai Walker
Scenic Design by William Luther
Costume, Hair & Make-Up Design by Margarette Joyner
Lighting Design by Steven Koehler
Sound Design and Original Music by Kyle Epps
Projections Design by Dasia Gregg
Props Design by Tim Moehring
Intimacy Choreographer – Kirsten Baity
Violence/Asst Intimacy Choreographer – Stephanie Tippi Hart
Assistant to the Properties Designer – Nicole Pisaniello
Dialect Coach – Evamarii Johnson
Dramaturg – Shinji Elspeth Oh
Assistant Director – David Powell
Original Scenic Concept – Mercedes Schaum
Technical Director – Rebecka Russo
Assistant Stage Manager – Dwight Merritt
Production State Manager – Shawanna Hall
Photo Credits: John MacClellan
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