Simple. Beautiful. Haunting. This is exactly what author Donja R. Love’s Chicago premiere production of “Sugar in Our Wounds” is in the hands of director Mikael Burke. The harrowing and uplifting tale comes to life under an intimate, cobbled tree canopy that breathes life, joy, and a heartbeat into a landscape of constant degradation. “Sugar is Our Wounds” is not an easy story, but it’s an important and affecting story that should be required viewing for all Chicago theater-goers.
While the Civil War rages, and political dispatches reach them in dribs and drabs, a makeshift family of slaves on a plantation in the deep South welcomes a new member, Henry (Londen Shannon). They have all lost their people to death and disappearance and cling to each other; Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) is an all-encompassing mother and healer, Mattie (Ashley Crowe) is tortured and scarred daily by the plantation owners who share her blood, and James (Michael Turrentine) keeps his ability to read a secret, among other things. Their lives are all entwined with an ominous tree that has a bloody history as a slave hanging site, and a supernatural draw for James and Henry, inviting them to discover the love they could share. Of course, nothing stays simple in this fraught, transactional atmosphere, where a same-sex relationship makes James and Henry easier targets for white violence than just their blackness would.
What happens onstage is nothing short of a profound experience, with each character exchange broken down to be equally minimal and meaningful. As Aunt Mama, Renee Lockett lavishes knowledge and gifts on each of her younger charges, and takes up the weight of their losses and her own. Ashley Crowe retreats into herself so fully as Mattie, it’s as if she’s willing herself to become invisible each time the sadistic Miss Isabel (Grainne Ortlieb) gets within striking distance. Apart from his relationship with James, Londen Shannon’s Henry wearily fends off everyone else in their attempts to commodify him for his body. As James, Michael Turrentine floats on air in a way his close counterparts cannot. This is due to the special, dreamlike relationship he maintains with the large tree that seems to live, breathe and impart its’ secrets only to him.
The tree itself is a gorgeous amalgamation character brought to life by scene designer Joy Ahn, sound designer Sam Clapp, and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Its voices, pulsing lights, and descending woven plank arms make it an interactive supporting player. Director Mikael Burke has amassed a brilliant ensemble, and whittled each moment down to angry and poetic normalcy. It’s an opportunity for all Chicago theater-goers to face historic cruelty at its most disturbing, and not flinch. “Sugar in Our Wounds” is not an easy play to watch, but there is such a reward in the way it values queerness and blackness that history has callously dismissed.
DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show“
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A tree is one slave’s portent of love and death.
Show: “Sugar in Our Wounds”
Company: First Floor Theater
Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave.)