Director Saheem Ali and the very fine designers of the Manhattan Theater Club have created a magical setting for Donja R. Love’s “Sugar in our Wounds,” a romantic drama (the first in a trilogy) about two male slaves who find love in each other’s arms as the American Civil War rages. Regrettably, once he makes a big business of bringing the two lovers together, the playwright has little else to say about slavery, the South or the war.
But let’s hear it for the Tree! The centerpiece of Arnulfo Maldonado’s austerely gorgeous set is a tree of heroic proportions. The roots of this colossus can’t be contained in the earth and its topmost limbs stretch far out of sight. Legend has it that this is a hanging tree, but with delicate mosses dangling like lace handkerchiefs, you can’t really see the blood of history dripping from its boughs.
The great tree is the gathering place for slaves on the unnamed plantation where the play is set. Aunt Mama, an earth mother played by Stephanie Berry with crushing conviction, plies visitors with whatever food and drink she has at hand, while delivering maternal lectures on life and love in a thick dialect laced with earthy profanities. Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), a sweet young woman inexperienced in the ways of the world, lets Aunt Mama interpret that world for her. James, another young innocent Aunt Mama has taken under her wing, is played by Sheldon Best with the blooming but untapped passion of a young Romeo, a role he played at the Public Theater and for the Classical Theater of Harlem. Mattie, understandably, can’t take her eyes off this beautiful youth. Who could?
Certainly not Henry, a manly man played by Chinaza Uche with trouser buttons just bursting to be free. Although love-starved Mattie makes a successful if undignified lunge for Henry during the night, Henry has his eye on James, and after chasing him around the tree a few times eventually initiates him into the miracle of sex, and possibly even love.
And that, you see, is just about it. In a program note, Love writes: “The existence of Queer people of color, particularly of African descent, has repeatedly been washed over, or forgotten altogether.” His intention, he says, is to honor the “neglected stories” of queer love in pivotal moments of history – “Sugar in Our Wounds” being his entry for the period of slavery in America. Knowing that the love story of Henry and James is part of a grand dramaturgical design gives it more weight. But experienced on its own, the romance speaks its name but moves on without leaving any echoes from its moment in history.