By Tulis Mccall
Donja Love was set on the path of truth the day he came out to his mother. She said, “As a parent, all you want is for your child to live an easy life, but you won’t. Your life will be hard, because there are millions of people in this world who don’t even know you and want you dead.” As he puts it, this honesty opened him to a chance to discover Queer Black narratives. Like Tarell Alvin McCraney, Mr. Love chooses to take us into worlds that have been smothered by the story tellers with power. His is a direct approach – sort of.
For Sugar In Our Wounds he has chosen the love story of two males slaves James (Sheldon Best) and Henry (Chinaza Uche). Love among slaves was a dangerous commodity. Love between two men was a death sentence of the most gruesome kind.
The odd fact about this play is that the two strongest and most clearly defined characters are women on the opposites sides of life. Not the two men who are the intended center of the story. First of all – all eyes are on Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry). period. When she is on the stage she is the fulcrum of the action. So strong is her presence that when she is absent, you wonder where she is and what she is up to.
Isabel (Fern Cozine) is a bored young white woman who considers slaves her personal candy. She flings the “n” word around as if it were sachet. Slaves are smelly, stupid facts of life, who are headed to be hung from the great tree that looms over every life we see. Oh some can be taught to read – but that is just a past time. And some can be taught to fuck, and that is understandable while her husband is away at the war. And underneath it all they are to be feared.
Both Berry and Cozine handle their characters with precision and grace. These are two skilled and devoted actors. Their make their performances look easy, which is why we are glued to their every move. In addition, Love has given them the words that drive the play, and their hold on the reins is unwavering.
Less fruitful are the efforts to bring the two men and their love to life. Not only is the writing in these scenes lacking the specificity of the women’s scenes, neither actor appears to be committed to the situation. As Mattie, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart is given little to grab hold of in terms of story and the result is that her part in this story remains obscure.
There are other lapses in the writing – points that take too long to make, actions that are not what the immediate situation calls for. The direction of Saheem Ali keeps pace with the writing, sometimes clear and other times confusing. Mr. Love has sincere intentions. And they are leading us all outside of the box. Yay to that. In this case, however, he beats around the bush so much that the narrative becomes mushy. This is not what he intended. One hopes that as his trilogy progresses he finds a mentor to guide him to uncover the actions that will drive his stories.
In the meantime he is to be congratulated for shining his light on this hidden chapter of our collective history. May he inspire others to do the same.
The story of James and Henry has stayed with me, and, I believe will stay with everyone who sees this play. “Of course”, you think as you exit the theatre. “Of course loving had and has all shapes and sizes. We of this post-Stonewall time did not make this up. Where two or more or gathered – there is love.”
Sugar In Our Wounds – by Donja R. Love, Directed by Saheem Ali
Stephanie Berry (Aunt Mama), Sheldon Best (James), Fern Cozine (Isabel), Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Mattie), and Chinaza Uche (as Henry).
Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Jason Lyons (lighting design), Palmer Hefferan (sound design), Michael Thurber (original music), Darrell Grand Moultrie (movement), and Cookie Jordan (hair & makeup design).
Manhattan Theatre Club present Sugar in Our Wounds, The Studio at Stage II – Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street). Through July 29, 2018
Single tickets are available for purchase online at www.nycitycenter.org, by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, or by visiting the New York City Center box office (131 West 55th Street). New and renewing subscribers can join MTC’s 2018-2019 season by calling The MTC Clubline at 212-399-3050. For more information, please visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com. To sign up for MTC’s “30 Under 30” program, offering $30 tickets