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 set him on a course to discover Queer Black narratives. Like Tarrell 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 male 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. They 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 are gathered - there is love."
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Have you turned off your phone? Have you unwrapped those famous candies? Do you have a few hankies at the ready? If not, sprint to the bathroom and stuff your pockets with toilet paper squares before Donja R. Love’s throat-lumpening, nose-reddening, fantastically moving and not entirely persuasive Sugar in Our Wounds really gets going. You are going to need them."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
"Much more than a century separates the same-sex themed “Making Love,” a major movie studio’s first look at gay love, and Donja R. Love’s new play, Sugar in Our Wounds... What puts these two wildly disparate works together is how much better both are at showing a straight woman’s anxiety at being rejected by a gay man. What neither explores with much clarity is the homosexual relationship."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
External links to full reviews from popular press...