BWW Review: Donja R. Love's SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS Depicts Gay Love Between Slaves During The Civil War
"The existence of queer people of color, particularly of African descent, has repeatedly been washed over, or forgotten altogether," writes Donja R. Love, whose evocative Sugar in Our Wounds is receiving a handsome and well-acted production from Manhattan Theatre Club, via director Sahaam Ali.
His ambitious drama is the first entry of a trilogy called The Love Plays, which he describes as "a surrealistic voyage through queer love during pivotal moments in black history: Slavery (SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS), the Civil Rights Movement (FIREFLIES), and the Black Lives Matter Movement (IN THE MIDDLE)." His intention is to celebrate those whose "existence is constantly being erased from history," rather than "dwell on their tragedy or otherness."
It's the summer of 1862 on a southern plantation, and the centerpiece of designer Arnulfo Maldonado's set is an impressive rendering of the bottom of an enormous tree, symbolically anchored by large, strong roots with weeping leaves gracefully hanging above the actors.
The blood, according to Aunt Mama, is that of James' father and long line of male ancestors, all of whom where lynched at that tree, which extends up to heaven. But she believes that James' "smarts" and "sweetness" will help him escape that fate. Her prediction seems headed closer to reality when light-skinned Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who works in the house, gives James a newspaper that contains an article about how President Lincoln is working with congress to draft a bill to free the slaves.
James can read it because a young woman of the house, Isabel (Fern Cozine) gives him lessons, allowing him to practice by reading passages of her Bible. Isabel, whose husband is "doing the work of the Lord by fighting so you can keep this good life," expresses condescending affection for James with her sugary tones.
Serving as matriarch, Aunt Mama cultivates a feeling of family among those in the slave quarters, no matter how their bloodlines may differ. That balance is challenged with the arrival of handsome, strong, dark-skinned Henry (Chinaza Uche), newly purchased by the owner.
Mattie is immediately attracted to Henry, and makes her interest clear to him one night when the others are sleeping, but the new arrival's emotional armor is only softened during his moments alone with James, who is confused, but receptive when Henry kisses him.
If heterosexual love between slaves was a precarious bond, due to the continual possibility of sudden and permanent separation, homosexual love was certainly an invitation to be lynched. But with the possibility of freedom being on its way, the young couple of Sugar in Our Wounds can consider a future where what for centuries has been unthinkable could really happen.
As Love stated, this is a play to celebrate what was beautiful in an ugly world, rather than dwell on tragedy or otherness.