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Sugar in Our Wound

. . . da past and da future, everything dat was and everything dat's gonna be always folds inta each otha ta give us right now. Dis moment. Find da love dat's in dis moment. — Aunt Mama's advice to the much younger Henry in Donja R. Love's Sugar in Our Wounds
Sugar in our Wounds
Sheldon Best, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Stephanie Berry, Chinaza Uche. (Photo:Joan Marcus)
The most striking physical element in the eye-appealing Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) production of Donja R. Love's Sugar in Our Wounds is a massive tree. Love's drama, skillfully directed by Saheem Ali, moves cinematically among several locations, but scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado's imposing tree dominates every episode of the story.

Generations of black males have perished at this tree, mercilessly executed by white men indifferent to justice and due process of law. At the southern plantation where this play is set, the names of those lynched and their stories are long forgotten; in Love's imaginative universe, though, the dead are a ghostly presence.

When James (Sheldon Best), an enslaved youth with a sharp mind and generous heart, seeks relief from day-to-day hardships in the shade of this tree, a chorus of spectral voices serenades him. Palmer Hefferan's skilled sound design — which incorporates the tree's sounds, spoken and sung by Mykal Kilgore, with music by Michael Thurber — is essential to the effectiveness of this production's atmosphere of magical realism. "I hear 'em," James tells Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry), the wise old woman who is his surrogate mother. "They callin' my name."

James has been selected by unknown forces to commune with the undocumented past. Aunt Mama, whom the playwright describes as "probably older than God," is the only person in James' world with sufficient hindsight to help him understand the history of forced immigration and the Africans who are his forebears.

Love, a Philadelphia native and Juilliard graduate, describes himself as "an Afro-Queer playwright, poet and filmmaker." Sugar in Our Wounds belongs to a trilogy, The Love Plays, which, in the playwright's words, "examine identity by unapologetically dramatizing the multifaceted nuance of Blackness and Queerness — a diverse intersection filled with colorful stories, and a reimaging of monolithic narratives that challenge the white supremacist, heteronormative structures in American culture." James is Love's alter-ego in the ambitious quest to portray how forgotten figures in history managed to live against the grain of convention.

Having suffered decades of cruelty and caprice at the hands of white masters, the wise and loving Aunt Mama fears James is going to meet a sad end through no fault of his own. She has long been warning him about Isabel (Fern Cozine), the plantation-owner's daughter, who wants to satisfy a yen or two with James while her husband's far away with the Confederate army. When James and Henry (Chinaza Uche), a virile newcomer to the slave quarters, start disappearing together for hours at a time, Aunt Mama becomes terrified that James will face death at the tree like enslaved men she has known and cherished throughout her life.

Director Ali steers this production along a narrow path that runs between the realistic and the fanciful, ensuring that the five fine actors do justice both to what's straightforward and to what's exotic in Love's often poetic, sometimes banal, script.

Cozine, playing Isabel, the horny, self-centered daughter of the plantation's owner, rightly goes over-the-top with stereotypical malice: what else could one do with that part?

As Mattie, a one-time house servant banished to field work because of undeniable resemblance to the plantation owner, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart has a role that's almost as thankless as Cozine's. In a heartbreaking performance, Stewart conveys the pain beneath the character's surface frustration with a complexity that's believable and heartbreaking and that enhances immeasurably what's in the playwright's text.

Best and Uche play their scenes of sexual discovery with unaffected simplicity, which yields far more poignance than could be achieved with even the most carefully selected combination of romantic flourishes. These two gifted actors make the anachronisms in Love's dialogue work handily, overcoming the periodic false notes in the script.

Berry, always convincing as the wisest soul on the plantation, would be reason enough to see Sugar in Our Wounds. Her performance is as monumental as the gnarled trunk of Maldonado's tree and as beautiful as its pendulous branches and the twinkling lights among its leaves. But she's also very funny. Thanks to Berry's Aunt Mama, audiences will recall this tale of bigotry and thwarted love for its humor as well as tragedy.

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Sugar in Our Wounds by Donja R. Love
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast: Stephanie Berry (Isabel), Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Mattie), Chinaza Uche (Henry).
Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design by Dede Ayite
Lighting Design by Jason Lyons
Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan
Original Music by Michael Thurber
Production Stage Manager: Jeremy Kyle Lewis
Presented by Manhattan Theater Club
New York City Center Stage II (131 W. 55th St.)
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes without intermission
From 6/5/18; Opened 6/19/18; Closing 7/15/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 6/17/18 press preview.

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