Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
On the audience right side of the stage, a modest arrangement of cots and stools conjure a crude hut that shelters a quartet of slaves on a plantation in the American South during the Civil War. On that half of the stage harsh realities and painful confessions are revealed; on the tree side, aspirations and dreams are unleashed while the collapse of dreams and the pain inflicted on dreamers is archived. Behind both sides, projections depict pastoral open space between the hut and the tree, bisected by a narrow stream of running water that must be crossed to move from the present to either past or future.
If this sounds like heavy symbolism to lay on a play, it is, but Love is adept at its use. Sugar in Our Wounds' symbolic elements keep its aloft between harsh realism and mysticism. Realism comes in the form of layered deprivations visited upon those who are Black and enslaved and queer in an intolerant world. Mysticism comes from within the tree. It sings out the names of Black men hung from its branches to die, even as it calls to the oppressed to climb and rise above this world and see if its soaring branches can deliver them to paradise.
We first meet three slaves. Aunt Mama (Erika LaVonn) is an ancient who holds the wisdom accrued over a long past and the vision to see beyond the present. Mattie (Alexis Sims) was raised in the "big house," but after the master tried to sleep with her she was thrown out by the master's wife, though not before she hideously scarred Mattie's face by a whip. James (Nathan Barlow) is a dreamer, with a gentle affect and searching mind. The master's daughter Isabel (Briana Patnode) is teaching James to read on the sly, using newspaper clippings she secrets away, causing Aunt Mama to call James a "learning boy." Isabel's overt gestures toward James indicate a carnal interest, which he ignores. What does interest James is his patrilineal legacy: his father was hanged from the big tree, as well as his grandfather, his great grandfather, and on back to the first of them to arrive. James seeks connection with the missing men in his lineage, while living in fear of suffering their fate.
A newly purchased slave named Henry (Antonio Duke) arrives. He and the rest of his family were each sold off to different plantations as punishment for an attempted escape. Henry supposes it's a worse punishment than death would be and vows to find his people. He is bitter, morose and exhausted. Soon, however, a moment occurs–tenderly rendered on stage–when James and Henry see something in one another's eyes and know they are meant to love each other. This stirs joy in Henry, jealousy and sorrow in Maddie, watchful concern in Aunt Mama, and contempt in Isabel. For James there is elation, but also anxiety over whether his feelings are "normal." When James reads in one of the news clippings that President Lincoln is considering a proclamation to free the slaves, there is jubilation (gloriously choreographed by Patricia Brown) in the hut. That surely will change everything!
Love places the theme of forbidden gay love in an unexpected context where anything that affirms self-worth is forbidden, let alone acts believed to be outlawed in the bible itself, tremendously increasing the danger to James and Henry. Yet, when we see the two men cradled in each other's arms, their smiles radiating with happiness, nothing seems more right. They lean against the back of the tree, a tree nourished by the blood of men who preceded them, as if transferring its strength to them. There is a purity in their love. Indeed, the only graphic sexual act in the play is not between the two men, but is an act of desperate heterosexual intercourse, lacking an iota of affection.
The imagery is beautiful, the language–most of it in the dialect of Black plantation slaves–is lyrical, though at times it teeters on the edge between naturalism and parody. Sarah Bellamy's sure-handed direction and respect for the playwright's work keep the play from tipping toward the latter. The tree is a stunning, but perhaps overbearing image. All that occurs among the characters occurs without the intervention of the tree, yet the tree is repeatedly referenced for its extraordinary power. Its presence adds a patina of mythology that gives the narrative a sense of perpetuity, but at the expense of allowing for the agency of the people in its shade. At the end, the tree remains the source of hope, the final light shifting from those characters on stage to the leafy boughs.
All five performances are gripping. Nathan Barlow is exquisite as a man-child with an unshakable naivety coexisting with a dread that has been festering for centuries. Antonio Duke is impressive as strong-minded Henry who, even as a slave, speaks out to the overseers and can readily accept the unexpected gift of falling in love with another man. Erika LaVonn, remembered from stunning work at Penumbra in Pipeline several seasons back, is a force of nature as Aunt Mama, taking her time to speak what she knows to be truth and expressing love for the others through her honesty and her very endurance. Alexis Sims delivers a heartbreaking performance as Mattie and clings to whatever slim hope life allows her, while Briana Patnode conveys Isabel's self-absorption and cruelty, and a streak of vulgarity that departs from the stereotypic image of a virginal Southern belle.
Marcus Dilliard's lighting design creates a wide swath of atmospheres, while Scott Edwards' sound design, with rustling breezes, chirping insects, and tweeting birds, establishes a natural world surrounding the one wrought by man. Matthew LeFebvre has designed apt costumes and Sanford Moore has composed subtle underscoring that brings additional texture to the production.
The play is not without flaws. The first act moves somewhat slowly, though the pace quickens in the second. There is little evidence of the daily privation of slave life, as most of the scenes are set on their sabbath, their day without work–and they never seem worn down to pulp by the preceding six long days of grueling work. The rationale for both James' and Henry's choices at the end of the play seems a bit inconsistent with what had transpired to that point, though it does make for a deeply wrenching conclusion.
Flaws aside, there is much more that is right about Sugar in Our Wounds. Donja R. Love is a highly touted, rising artist who identifies as an Afro-Queer, HIV positive playwright and filmmaker. Love began playwrighting in the late 2000s, in part as a way to grapple with receiving a positive HIV diagnosis. Sugar in Our Wounds is the first of a trilogy they wrote to present Black queer lives in three pivotal historical contacts. Sugar in Our Wounds won the Laurents/Hatcher Award for Playwriting to support its first full production in 2018 at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. The trilogy's second play, Fireflies, takes place in the cauldron of the early 1960s civil rights movement, and the third, In the Middle, is set in the recent moments of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their best known work to date is one in two, inspired by a report stating that one in two queer Black men will have a positive HIV diagnosis in the course of their lifetime. I have not seen any of Love's other work, but based on this introduction, I hope that much more reaches our local stages.
The title is an obvious twist on the saying "don't pour salt on a wound." Here the substance descending on the wound may be sweet, but burns nonetheless. Sugar in Our Wounds delivers the sweetness and the searing pain endured by all of the characters inhabiting the world summoned up by Love, in a lyrical and deeply moving play.
Sugar in Our Wounds runs through March 19, 2023, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $20.00- $45.00. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Donja B. Love; Director: Sarah Bellamy; Scenic Designer: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Designer: Matthew LeFebvre; Lighting Designer: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Scott Edwards; Properties Designer: Joe Burch III: Amy Reddy; Projections Designer: Miko Simmons; Assistant Projections Designer: Jerry Hsiao; Hair and Makeup Designer: Andrea Moriarity; Musical Director/Composer: Sanford Moore; Choreographer: Patricia Brown; Intimacy Coach: Kaja Dunn; Dialog Coach: Chris Berry; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades; Assistant Stage Manager: Zhané Jackson.
Cast: Nathan Barlow (James), Antonio Duke (Henry), Erika LaVonn (Aunt Mama), Briana Patnode (Isabel), Alexis Sims (Mattie).