If there’s a talking tree involved in a manuscript, you can assume what’s at hand is a folk tale. That’s the case with Sugar in Our Wounds, the insistent Donja R. Love play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II. Not only does the tree—which, as designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, looks to be a weeping willow—talk (voice by Mykel Kilgore), but it also sings.
When it talks, it sometimes intones the name James, and James (Sheldon Best) is the 1862 member of a family who, from generation to generation, have been hanged from the tree, making weeping willow a fitting arboreal choice. James is told the chronology by Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry), who serves as family for Henry, as she does for Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and eventual arrival Henry (Chinaza Uche).
(Remember: this is happening at a time when actual families were regularly separated. Sound troublingly familiar these days?)
Discussing the large tree, Aunt Mama attributes its girth and strength to “blood at the root”—the blood being that shed over the decades by the many victims suspended from its branches. (The lyric “blood at the root” appears in Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” popularized by Billie Holiday. N.B.: When the tree in “Sugar in Our Wounds” sings, it does not sing “Strange Fruit.”)
That James repeatedly hears his name called is a formidable hint as to where Sugar in Our Wounds is headed along its grim, intermissionless 135-minute way. But before Love ends a tragedy that includes much unexpected humor, he packs into it much gritty activity.
This depiction of white supremacy, which runs counter to how Scarlett O’Hara treats her slaves in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, has James being taught to read by Isabel (Fern Cozine), the white daughter of the slave owner for whom James picks cotton six days a week. For Isabel, teaching James on the Sabbath is a lark. Her good deed, however, doesn’t stop her behaving cruelly towards him and Mattie. She regards them as ready recipients of racist torment, her worst display involving a slops bucket she insists befouls the air in their home.
The other dominant plot thread has James offering to teach reading to fugitive Henry, who’s hoping some day he’ll reunite with his parents. James does, and in gratitude for his help, Henry declares affection that develops into a love affair they hope to keep hidden but doesn’t fool wise, resolved-to-her-station Aunt Mama.
In a somewhat subordinate plot point, Mattie seduces Henry and becomes pregnant. She doesn’t, however, see herself as vying with James for Henry’s time. She’s simply grateful for a pregnancy she regards as confirming her womanhood.
All the carryings-on occur under Aunt Mama’s watchful eye either in the shack where she sleeps on a cot and the others sleep on floor mats or around the singing tree, which both James and Henry attempt to climb, and where the occasional supernatural event materializes. (Lighting designer Jason Lyons, sound designer Palmer Hefferan, and composer Michael Thurber have much to do with those eerie effects.)
Since James reads, he’s able to announce that the one newspaper he owns has declared President Lincoln is preparing to end slavery—the Emancipation Proclamation, as such, is not named. The revelation gives Aunt Mama, James, Mattie and Henry the opportunity to dance their joy, and the several minutes during which they do is the upbeat, audience-cheering highpoint in an otherwise progressively downbeat dramatic arch—all infrequent ups and dismal downs well acted.
The play, directed with angry sensitivity by Saheem Ali, possesses a folk tale’s disturbing enchantment, which rises to horror in a final scene that unfolds when Henry returns to the family after he’s had to flee a potential lynching as the result of a rape claim Isabel makes after he declines her advances.
Even sketchily describing the sequence following his reappearance could be a spoiler. Nevertheless, it’s necessary, since the scene point to a playwriting wrinkle. When Henry turns up to rejoin James, Aunt Mama and Mattie must fill him in on the events leading to James’ absence.
Ordinarily, telling rather than showing is a dramaturgical weakness. It is here, with the mitigating factor being that showing what transpired—as opposed to telling—would be far more upsetting. Already that’s enough said—or possibly more than enough—of a segment where Love’s choice of title becomes achingly clear.
At a time when national racism is still a profoundly disturbing issue—maybe even worsening under the current administration—Sugar in Our Wounds zooms in on a moment in American history that should ideally be deep in the receding past but isn’t. That may be the play’s truest power.
Sugar in Our Wounds opened June 19, 2018, at New York City Center Stage II and runs to July 8. Tickets and information: sugarinourwounds.com