A romantic drama with a tree as the main character
Lapacazo Sandoval | 6/28/2018, midnight
One of the central and unexpected characters in Donja R. Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds”—directed by Saheem Ali—is a mystical tree with roots that are buried deep into the Southern soil.
Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds” is every inch a romantic drama that is the first in a trilogy. The love story is about two male African slaves who find love in each other’s arms as the American Civil War rages. Just one of the two can read, barely, re-reading a hidden old newspaper.
Production designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is both functional and breathtakingly beautiful. The tree is the set’s centerpiece and the product of the production designer’s mind. To begin, the roots of this colossus can’t be contained in the earth; it holds supernatural power. At its topmost limbs stretch far out of sight, suggesting that it leads straight to Heaven’s gates.
The mystical tree has a reputation that proceeds it, or more to the point, it’s referred to as a hanging tree. At first sight, it appears delicate with the green moss that dangles, looking like time-worn lace handkerchiefs. But the stories of the proud African men who were hung for resisting—they say—has given the roots and the soil around it true power.
In the normal world, that same tree is a gathering place for poorly treated slaves on the unnamed plantation where the play is set. Standing tall and in charge is Aunt Mama, sturdy as the earth itself and played by Stephanie Berry with unwavering conviction and complexity. From the start, she won’t let any visitor starve. She shares whatever food and drink she managed to hideaway while delivering those life lessons with love that is nicely punctuated by colorful profanities.
Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), God bless her soul, is a biracial woman whose mother was raped by the master of the house, her father, who sexually favors her. She’s a sweet young woman inexperienced in the ways of the world. James (Sheldon Best) is yet another young innocent that the protective Aunt Mama has taken under her wing. His thirst for education makes him a compelling character the moment he opens his mouth.
And then comes Henry, a run-away and manly man played by Chinaza Uche with trousers a bit too tight, suggesting that he’s bursting with life just under the cheap cotton. God bless her soul—again—poor love-starved Mattie makes a successful seduction of Henry in the night, despite the fact that Henry, the manly man, has his eyes set on James.
While at the tree, Henry, after chasing James around the tree, literally, finally initiates him into the joy of sex, opening the door to the possibility of true love.
Love is what the play is about. That simple. To further and perfectly underscore the tone of “Sugar in Our Wounds,” it’s best that I give the playwright Donja R. Love the last words on the matter: “The existence of queer people of color, particularly of African descent, has repeatedly been washed over, or forgotten altogether.” His intention, he says, is to honor the “neglected stories” of queer love in pivotal moments of history, with “Sugar in Our Wounds” being his entry for the period of slavery in America. Knowing that the love story of Henry and James is part of a grand dramaturgical design gives it more weight. But experienced on its own, the romance speaks its name but moves on without leaving any echoes from its moment in history.
“Sugar in Our Wounds” is playing at the Manhattan Theater Club. For more information, visit manhattantheaterclub.com.