Sugar in our Wounds by Donja R. Love at First Floor Theater is nestled in the upstairs of the Den Theatre, a space designed by Joy Ahn to hold its audience tightly through the events of the play. Seemingly endless branches that source from an ancient tree glow from within, arching over the space as if to say come closer, I have a story in my roots. If you listen closely, Sam Clapp’s sound design will have you thinking you hear the ancestors murmuring to you as the wind whistles through the branches.
Deep within our histories there are the stories that remain untold, that are rediscovered by active imaginations on stages and screens. Donja R. Love reimagines intimate relationships during American chattel slavery, set against the backdrop of possible freedom. Rumors of the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation run through this play, and personal freedom is at the forefront of every character’s mind.
Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) runs a strict household where she houses James (Michael Turrentine) and Mattie (Ashley Crowe). A household that we are repeatedly reminded does not belong to her, as visitors frequently enter the house and completely change the space. Director Mikael Burke heightens the tension by betraying the small chosen family’s safety in the cabin with every entrance and exit.
Isabel (Grainne Ortlieb) the white woman whose husband owns the plantation enters the room and all the air leaves the space. It is hard to breathe as you understand the subtle threats beneath her pleasantries, and her manner hardly changes even when the range of her cruelty becomes unspeakable. Ortlieb’s performances is haunting because one of the only moments she truly loses emotional control, there is no sense of helplessness, rather we see the predator emerge unmasked.
There is a sense that Isabel is hunting James, an innocent young man who has been taught to be quiet under the watch of Aunt Mama. She frequently visits the cabin to teach him to read the Bible, assuring him all the while that Daniel who was victorious over his enemies with the help of God was not Black. Christianity was not given to James as a tool within which he could find himself, but rather to study the God of his oppressor.
As soon as we have established our characters and the danger that Mattie and James are in, the balance of the world is upset once more with the arrival of a mysterious stranger. Henry (a defiant Londen Shannon) bursts into the cabin, bringing with him the boisterous mood that would define his character, unable to justify the extent to which someone else owns his body. Henry changes everything.
Suddenly, the possibilities of where to find freedom expand for everybody onstage. Though Henry is desperate to return to his people, Aunt Mama knows she must teach him how to mask his spirit, because it will make him a target for the overseers who want to extinguish it. Somewhere within Aunt Mama’s fierce yet quietly desperate pleas that her children just listen, you hear the desire to free a part of herself through the legacy of these chosen children. If they survive, so does she, in a way.
At this point in the story, you realize that Aunt Mama, played with a hilarious and biting wit by Renee Locket, is pronounced “Ain’t Mama.” For you see, none of the children we see onstage are Aunt Mama’s biological offspring. This is crushing, as you understand the impossibility of the nuclear family when physical autonomy is ripped from the individual. These folks have chosen each other and they are guarded by Aunt Mama, an ancestor who has tools the younger generation don’t necessarily understand, yet must be taught.
Mattie, the young woman in the house whose face was scarred by the white women of the plantation when the Master tried to sexually assault her, seeks a different kind of freedom. She seeks freedom over her own body with arguably disastrous consequences. This is where the script falls a little short for me, though Ashley Crowe’s performance soared. Crowe infuses Mattie with so much anguish and sweetness that I kept trying to find compassion for this character, even though she seemed to have little respect for the physical autonomy of the men onstage as she sought her own sexual freedom. However, by the end it was disturbing to me that both women in the play, Isabel and Mattie, are fixated on getting sex any way they can and it is the crux of so much tragedy in the show.
Sugar in our Wounds contains great pain, but there are also inspiring doses of joy and intimacy. James is given a wide eyed, nimble presence by Michael Turrentine. Not the kind of young man who relies on debasing himself to be small, he is just observant and enthusiastic, with a remarkable amount of self control for such a seemingly young person – arguably due to Aunt Mama. That changes when Henry comes to town and they collide in a passionate love that shakes the ancestral tree and community to their very roots. We are, due to Mikael Burke’s creative staging, able to peek in on their intimate moments suspended in its branches, beautifully lit by Eric Watkins.
What moved me most of all, was Aunt Mama’s question to her young children in the wake of great difficulty: how can you find love in this moment? As someone who runs an outlet that focuses on that very question, it haunted me to see that concept invoked. The only way to actually survive, and to move forward, is to find the love in the moment. Therefore where there is great tragedy there is great hope: that one of the most powerful aspects of Blackness is the creation of new pathways through the power of love. Vengeance is the language of the oppressor, and creation is the language of the oppressed. There is still time to create the world in which we want to live, the world our ancestors did not get to see. Sugar in our Wounds taps into the all-encompassing, creative power of unrestricted Black Love without apology.
Sugar in our Wounds runs through November 23rd at First Floor Theater.
Mattie – Ashley Crowe
Aunt Mama – Renee Lockett
Isabel – Grainne Ortleib
Henry – Londen Shannon
James – Michael Turrentine
Director – Mikael Burke
Playwright – Donja R. Love
Scenic Design – Joy Ahn
Lighting Design – Eric Watkins
Sound Design – Sam Clapp
Costume Design – Madeleine Byrne
Violence and Intimacy Design – Ian Maryfield
Stage Management – Emma Franklin
Dialect Coach – Sana Selemon
Photography – Gracie Meier