Theater review by Regina Robbins
In Aleshea Harris’s sprawling new work On Sugarland, young Sadie (KiKi Layne) can “make the dead talk”—or so she claims. Her female forebears tell stories about how they stood up to bigotry, misogyny and violence, but they don’t tell Sadie what she really wants to know: What happened to her mother Iola, a soldier who went to war long ago and has never returned. Her neighbor Saul (Billy Eugene Jones), a veteran himself, might have answers to Sadie’s questions, but painkillers have dulled his memory. Are Sadie’s exchanges with her ancestors real or are they just fantasies of a grief-stricken child? Is Saul’s forgetfulness the side effect of drugs or a guilty conscience?
On Sugarland is a freewheeling adaptation of ancient Greek tragedy, mainly Sophocles’ Philoctetes with a hint of Antigone, but its subject—the history of Black soldiers serving a country that has never done right by them—is distinctly American. Sadie and Saul’s unnamed town is recognizable as one of many across the South where Black kids grow up in the shadow of the recruiting center. Everyone here not only knows but has lost someone to a war that never seems to end. When a loved one comes back in a box, their neighbors “holler” for their spirit and add a keepsake to a community memorial tended by Tisha (Lizan Mitchell), who is both the daughter and the mother of fallen warriors.
The parallels Harris draws between the religious rituals of the Greeks and those of African-American churches are given full expression by director Whitney White and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly; they stage the memorial hollers—ecstatic rites incorporating call-and-response, dance and a chorus of boisterous teens—so that the audience is immersed in them. With its musical interludes and many subplots, some of which peter out, On Sugarland takes its sweet time solving the mystery of Iola’s disappearance. But when the revelation comes, it unearths as many questions as it puts to rest.
Stellar performances by Layne and Jones—the soul and heart of the play, respectively—keep us on track when the production threatens to lose its way. The supporting cast also does exceptional work, with standouts including Caleb Eberhardt as Saul’s adoring son and Stephanie Berry as an elder who, in a community haunted by death, ostentatiously celebrates life. On Sugarland tackles deeply serious subjects, but watching it is no grim duty; it explodes with originality, playfulness and passion. It makes the dead talk but it also lets them dance.
On Sugarland. New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Aleshea Harris. Directed by Whitney White. With KiKi Layne, Billy Eugene Jones, Caleb Eberhardt. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.