‘Sugar in Our Wounds’ May Make You Cry About the Past, and the Present

Posted June 20, 2018 12:38 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Have you turned off your phone? Have you unwrapped those famous candies? Do you have a few hankies at the ready? If not, sprint to the bathroom and stuff your pockets with toilet paper squares before Donja R. Love’s throat-lumpening, nose-reddening, fantastically moving and not entirely persuasive “Sugar in Our Wounds” really gets going. You are going to need them.

Produced by Manhattan Theater Club and directed by Saheem Ali, “Sugar in Our Wounds,” set in the antebellum South, is an old-fashioned weepie written in lush, poetic dialect, with up-to-date interests and politics. Its techniques are melodramatic. Its assault on the tear ducts is aggravated. And yet its message is unimpeachable — that when we fail to treat one another as fully human, we invite tragedy.

The stage is dominated by a massive, moss-laden tree, lit by so many green and purple lights that I felt as if I had microdosed and gone to Disneyland. This was before the tree started singing. (The set is designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, the psychedelic lights by Jason Lyons.) Beneath its heaven-stretching branches, where generations of men have been hanged, we meet James (Sheldon Best), Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry) and Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), slaves on a Southern plantation in 1862.

Into their shack strides Henry (Chinaza Uche), recently sold to the plantation. His description of having been ripped from his family — mother, father, sister, brothers — synchronizes so neatly and so devastatingly with today’s migration crisis that it should wring the show’s first tears. “Stead uh hangin’ us, day tear us part,” he says. “Dat feel worse den bein’ hanged, I imagine.”

He finds some comfort in James (played by Best with typical force and radiance), kissing him the first time they’re alone together, exciting James’ own desire and Mattie’s jealousy. Isabel (Fern Cozine), the master’s white daughter, takes a dangerous interest in Henry, too.

“Sugar in Our Wounds” is part of a trilogy, called with gentle self-aggrandizement “The Love* Plays,” exploring the neglected history of same-sex relationships among African-Americans. The second play, the civil-rights-era “Fireflies,” will be staged by the Atlantic Theater Company this fall, with Ali again directing. The third play, “In the Middle,” is set within the Black Lives Matter movement.

Among contemporary writers, Love has a clear affinity with playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Suzan-Lori Parks, whose characters are sometimes burdened and sometimes elevated by the weight of history and myth. But Love’s shifts between dialect and lyricism are more self-conscious, his characterizations shallower.

That dialect is plainly the result of careful research, though sometimes I wished for less careful research and was reminded wistfully of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ preparatory note to “An Octoroon”: “I don’t know what a slave sounded like and neither do you.”

The play seems to set up an opposition between standard English and straight desire (all bad, or at least problematic) and African-American dialect and queer desire (all good and honest). This feels a little reductive, as does Aunt Mama’s notion that in Africa, “E’body lovin’ e’body. Menz lovin’ menz. Womenz lovin’ womenz.” Oddly, the one fully staged sex scene isn’t a loving tryst shared by James and Henry; it’s a brief, ambivalent encounter between a woman and a man. Heteronormativity dies hard.

If most of the dialect is appropriately historical, the attitudes aren’t. There’s no doubt that same-sex encounters and relationships occurred on plantations — there are allusions in at least a few slave narratives. But when James asks, “Is this normal?” and receives Aunt Mama’s love is love is love answer, or when Aunt Mama greets his coming out with her own disclosure, “I’s kiss da lips uh so many womenz. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout da ones on day face kneever,” these are 2018 lines. So is Aunt Mama’s applause-prompting advice to Mattie, “Don’t no menz turn ya into uh woman. You does dat on ya own.”

The script might have been stronger if it had wrestled with its conflicts and explored its desires more truthfully, less ahistorically. Even the title isn’t exactly faithful. It’s a forceful metaphor describing a further insult to a beaten body, but sugar is actually a potent antibacterial, useful in wound care.

“Sugar in Our Wounds” is a hurts-so-good kind of play, which congratulates the audience for sympathizing with its hugely sympathetic lovers. It’s a distinctively woke race melodrama, but it’s still a race melodrama — a genre that “An Octoroon” and, more recently, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” suggest we might retire. Love, who identifies as an “Afro-Queer playwright,” has chosen different heroes, but despite a few surreal interludes (that singing tree) he hasn’t altered the form.

It’s unclear what a Manhattan Theater Club audience — gay and straight, mostly white — will take away from it, other than the pleasure of a good cry. Is this what Love wants for his trilogy? Well, for now it’s what he gets. At a preview performance, during an enthusiastic curtain call, the sniffles were as loud as the applause.

“Sugar in Our Wounds” runs through July 8 at the Studio at Stage II at City Center, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.