Theater review by Juan Michael Porter II
Three slaves on the cusp of adulthood pursue their sweet, horny and rebellious desires in Donja R. Love’s powerful Sugar in Our Wounds, set on a Southern plantation in the smothering summer of 1862. Surly newcomer Henry (Chinaza Uche) is seduced by Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), the much-abused mulatto daughter of the plantation master, but finds himself drawn to the guileless James (Sheldon Best), who coaxes him to sleep with a soothing lullaby. Every man in James’s family has been lynched on the gargantuan tree that dominates Arnulfo Maldonado’s set. Somehow, he hears their collective voices through the tree; Henry comes to hear the tree, as well, and the two men are soon kissing with a tenderness that belies the brutality around them.
The sensible Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry) helps James embrace his feelings for Henry, which sends the tree singing “LOVE!” (in Mykal Kilgore’s jubilant voice). But this joy is dampened by an ominous warning of what will happen if the wrong people discover their “loathsome” desire. The challenge, as Aunt Mama says, is to “Turn dis ugly inta ya beauty.”
Like Zora Neale Hurston, the playwright has taken ethnographic pains to expertly capture the speaking patterns of his characters, and director Saheem Ali weaves together a world that feels like real life, even when the action branches into the supernatural. His ace collaborators include costumer Dede Ayite, choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie and hair and makeup designer Cookie Jordan. Together with a uniformly wonderful cast, they movingly convey Sugar’s central message: Love prevails even in a hopeless place.
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). By Donja R. Love. Directed by Saheem Ali. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.