SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS

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

STRANGE FRUIT

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

HISTORY LESSONS

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.

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Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS

Written by Donja R. Love

Directed by Lucretia Marie

CAST:

James …………………………………….          Jónel Jones

Aunt Mama ……………………………          Dorothy “Dee D.” Miller

Isabel …………………………………….          Charlotte Grace Smith

Mattie …………………………………..           Tyra Huckaby

Henry ……………………………………           Durron Marquis Tyre

Understudies

For Isabel – Juliette Aaslestad

For Aunt Mama – Sharalyn Bailey

For Mattie – Ayana Flowers

For Henry – Calvin Graves

For James – Makai Walker

CREATIVE TEAM:

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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HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

How to Safely Tell an Uncomfortable Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: March 11-26, 2022

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $15 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/

NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office and masks must be worn while at the theater.

The title of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, is a metaphor for a story so complex that it defies stereotypes. Vogel presents people not as good or bad, victim or victimizer, but as multi-layered and flawed humans. The play is more layered – and even stickier – than a baklava (Greek pastry), and Vogel chose to tell the story in non-chronological order, making it seem even more realistic as the scenes bombard the audience in much the same way as our own memories might arise from the murky depths of an unsuccessfully buried past.

The primary characters in this fractured and dysfunctional family tale are Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, her maternal aunt’s husband. It says a lot about the nature of this family unit that nicknames are derived from genitalia. The grandfather is Big Papa. Her little cousin is BB for Blue Balls, and her mother is referred to as the Titless Wonder. Li’l Bit, who is never identified by her real name, presented with petite genitalia at birth, and the name stuck, although from her teen years onward she is mercilessly bullied and teased by family and classmates alike for her ample bosom. Uncle Peck is an uncle by marriage, so I don’t think his name is part of this twisted roll call – but he makes up for it in other ways.

Both Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are given stellar performances by Juliana Caycedo and Jeffrey Cole, respectively. These are the kinds of roles that make people look at you sideways when they encounter you in the produce section of the local supermarket. The rest of the cast – family members, classmates – is played by three actors: Bianca Bryan as the Female Greek Chorus, Mahlon Raoufi as the Male Greek Chorus, and Maggie Bavolack as the Teenage Greek Chorus.

The story, narrated mostly by Li’l Bit with the help of the Greek Choruses, is a surrealistically humorous recounting of sexual abuse and survival cloaked in the guise of driving lessons. It is not surprising that Uncle Peck is an alcoholic; he is not the only one either. Li’l Bit also recounts the all too familiar pattern of women in the family who not only turn a blind eye to the abuse, but also blame the child for being seductive. Aunt Mary, Uncle Peck’s wife, blames Li’l Bit for her husband’s pedophilia (and incest?), waiting for Li’l Bit to go away to college so she can rekindle her marriage. Li’l Bit’s own mother reluctantly allows her daughter to go on a long drive to the beach with Uncle Peck, warning her that she will hold Li’l Bit – a child – responsible if anything happens. There are so many outrageous scenes like this, many of which may trigger memories in audience members as well as cast and staff, that it seems each performance should be followed by a talk-back with a therapist on hand.

How I Learned to Drive is so well performed and so well directed by Chelsea Burke that is should be required viewing. Caycedo is vulnerable and resilient. It is undoubtedly exhausting to play the role of Li’l Bit – especially knowing that there are thousands of Li’l Bits out there still fighting to survive. Cole presents as a really creepy guy, even as the role sometimes calls for him to present as a caring adult. He comforts Li’l Bit when she flees a family dinner, broken by the teasing about her large breasts and the family’s refusal to acknowledge her dreams of going to college. Who needs a college degree to lay on their back? That’s Big Papa’s perspective. Uncle Peck celebrates with her when she passes her driving test on the first try; but he also inappropriately plies her with martinis and oysters. What the hell is the matter with this man? The conflict is brought to the forefront when, at one point, Li’l Bit wisely wonders if someone had groomed or molested him when he was a child.

We applaud Li’l Bit’s survival and her ability to leave Uncle Peck behind, a diminishing image in her rear view mirror. At the same time, we weep for those who are still learning how to drive.

When I attended the Sunday matinee was followed by a talk back with members of the current cast and crew and members of the cast and crew of the 1998 performance, including cast members Gordon Bass and J.B. Steinberg and lighting designer Steve Koehler. The sharing was accompanied by memories and a few tears. Both were needed.

At the time of publication, there are only two more opportunities to see this run of How I Learned to Drive. If you can find a way to get there, run!

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
by Paula Vogel

Directed by Chelsea Burke

THE CAST
Lil Bit…………………………………Juliana Caycedo
Peck……………………………………..……Jeffrey Cole
Female Greek Chorus…………….Bianca Bryan
Male Greek Chorus…………..…Mahlon Raoufi
Teenage Greek Chorus……..Maggie Bavolack

THE TEAM
Direction: Chelsea Burke
Scenic Design: Alyssa Sutherland
Projections Design: Dasia Gregg
Lighting Design: Deryn Gabor
Costume Design: Maggie McGrann
Sound Design: Candace Hudert
Properties Design: Kathy Kreutzer
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Scenic Painters: Faith Carlson, Alyssa Sutherland
Assistant Stage Management: Leica Long
Associate Direction: Nadia Harika
Dramaturgy & Intimacy Direction: Stephanie “Tippi” Hart
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza

THE SCHEDULE
Friday, March 11 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, March 12 at 8pm – Opening Night
Thursday, March 17 at 8pm – Student Night
Friday, March 18 at 8pm
Saturday, March 19 at 8pm
Sunday, March 20 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, March 22 at 8pm – Community Partner Night
Friday, March 25 at 8pm
Saturday, March 26 at 8pm – Closing Night

Photos by Tom Topinka

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