Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

On Sugarland

Theatre Review by David Hurst - March 3, 2022

Stephanie Berry, Lizan Mitchell, Adeola Role, KiKi Layne,
Billy Eugene Jones, and Caleb Eberhardt

Photo by Joan Marcus
Aleshea Harris' new play at New York Theatre Workshop, On Sugarland, is a big, sprawling, imaginative, ambitious, messy, over-written kaleidoscope of heartache that's as riveting as it is exhausting. Focusing on three families grappling with the devastating effect of war on the Black community, Harris and her talented collaborator, director Whitney White, have created a unique piece of theatre that speaks to grief in the human condition, as well as the sacrifice Black people have made that's wholly out of proportion with the rest of the country.

On Sugarland doesn't sound like anything you've heard before, and that's a good thing. It "draws elements from Greek Tragedy, Southern gothic, Afro-surrealism, and hip-hop" in its quest to provoke audiences out of their racial complacency. Set in an unidentified city in the South, during a nondescript time of an unnamed war (yesterday, today, and unfortunately tomorrow), On Sugarland takes place in and around three mobile homes in a cul-de-sac.

In the first mobile home we find Sadie (KiKi Layne), a preadolescent girl trying to make sense of her mother Iola Marie's mysterious death in the war. She tells us she can talk to the dead and that her greatest power is her invisibility as a young, Black girl. And though Sadie talks to us in the audience, she does not speak to anyone else in the play. Sadie lives with her mother's sister Odella (Adeola Role), who's taken to drink to dull the pain of losing her husband Freddy in the war.

In the second mobile home live Tisha (Lizan Mitchell) and Evelyn (Stephanie Berry), mature ladies who one suspects are sisters or cousins, but whose relationship is never specified. Tisha tends a memorial garden of sorts in front of their trailer, festooned with artifacts, dog-tags, and mementos of the many soldiers who have died in the war, including Tisha's son. Evelyn is only concerned with tending to Evelyn, and she parades about the cul-de-sac in one outlandish, inappropriate ensemble after another. It goes without saying, Evelyn and Tisha spend their lives criticizing and reproaching each other for a multitude of slights and shortcomings. They are, in a word, delicious.

Stephanie Berry and KiKi Layne
Photo by Joan Marcus
In the last mobile home we find Saul (Billy Eugene Jones), a former ordinance removal soldier who's dealing with an injured foot that won't heal, as well as a 17-year-old son Addis (Caleb Eberhardt), who is "touched," as people in the South charitably like to call it. Addis is picked on by his peers (The Rowdy; eight actors) and idolizes his "warrior" father. He wants to enlist, but Saul, knowing it would be a death sentence for his "special" son, forbids it, despite the fact he's trying to re-enlist himself. To complicate the day-to-day of the cul-de-sac, Addis is in love with the sensuous Odella, who used to babysit him when he was a child. But Odella, who is lonely and hungry for affection, has her eyes on Saul, who continually rebuffs her because he was in love with Odella's sister Iola Marie.

White has assembled an impressive design team who have created a visual and aural world that's fresh and provocative. But there's nothing "natural" about On Sugarland as evidenced by the scenic design of Adam Rigg, the costumes courtesy of Qween Jean, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, and sound by Mikaal Sulaiman. The Rowdy (Thomas Walter Booker, Xavier Scott Evans, Mister Fitzgerald, Josh Fulton, Charisma Glasper, Kai Heath, Shemar Yanick Jonas, and Mariyea) function as a Greek chorus, but a case could be made they're underutilized. That they start to slowly vanish within their role of chorus is a subtle, but powerful, metaphor for the unconscionable unfairness of Black soldiers' contributions to all wars throughout the ages. The only serious problem with On Sugarland is that it needs another edit to trim another 20-30 minutes. As it stands now, at almost three hours, the piece can't support its length and borders on being described as self-indulgent.

Special praise must be lavished on the principal cast of On Sugarland, all of whom are uniformly superb, as well as Harris for writing so many fantastic roles for women, particularly older women who are too frequently overlooked by playwrights of all colors and ages. As Odella, Adeola Role is a volcanic revelation, and the father-son relationship between Billy Eugene Jones and Caleb Eberhardt is shattering, even if this writer had a hard time buying into the explosive ending Harris chose to conclude her story. The older women, however, steal the show. Lizan Mitchell and Stephanie Barry are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, with Barry especially being given several monologues that have the audience worshiping Evelyn's no-holds-barred life lessons and withering opinions.

On Sugarland
Through March 20, 2022
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E 4th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: