The play opens with James sitting against a massive tree, crying (impressive performance by Nathan Barlow, going right there to the place of despair without any buildup). He's soon joined by a wise old woman whom everyone calls Aunt Mama, who tells him the story of this tree, a tree that sings and speaks, but was also the tree from which his father, grandfather, and countless ancestors were hung. Despite the trauma, or maybe because of it, James, Aunt Mama, and Mattie form a little family, into which comes the stranger Henry, a new slave to replace those off fighting in the war. Henry resists this family at first, wanting to run away to find the family from whom he was forcibly separated. But he's eventually won over by Aunt Mama's maternal affection, Mattie's kindness, and James' love, which comes as a surprise to both of them. One thorn in this family is the plantation owner's daughter, Miss Isabel, who has been teaching James how to read (out of boredom or as practice to be a teacher of "regular people"). In her desperation and loneliness, as well as a sense of possession of the people her family owns, she also comes on to first James, then Henry, which we know is the beginning of the end of this sweet love story. Freedom cannot come soon enough for these sweet lovers.
Sarah Bellamy directs this beautiful script by Donja R. Love with sensitivity and grace, creating some visually stunning tableaux in silhouette in the opening sequence. Things move along at an unhurried pace, the story unfolding in its own time and rhythm. The entire cast is wonderful. Erika LaVonn physically embodies a woman much older that she is, her years of wisdom and experience and loss evident in the stoop of her shoulders, her (painted on) wrinkles, and the slow way that she moves and speaks. Nathan Barlow and Antonio Duke are all lightness and joy as James and Henry, respectively, finding their way to each other, then plummeting to the depths of sorrow at the loss of newfound love. Alexis Sims is believable as the innocent Mattie who also falls for Henry, and Briana Patnode's Miss Isabel is the epitome of the vicious entitled Southern belle.
The design of the show is gorgeous, all elements working together to create the natural landscape of the plantation (which is the only beautiful thing about it other than the people who live in the slave quarters). The stage is dominated by a massive tree, which when unlit looks like a simple paper mâché construction with huge dull brown branches reaching across the stage, with a bit of gauzy white fabric draped over it. But once illuminated with projections, the tree turns into a living thing with dappled green leaves and vibrant bark. The backdrop is similarly transformed into the landscape of the plantation - cotton fields, a pleasant stream, and the changing light of the day - from sunrise, to broad daylight, to the stars at night. With morning bird calls, barking dogs, and other sounds of the plantation, the sound design completes the experience. Music is used in the storytelling, particularly the song that the tree and James sing. Characters are dressed in simple and worn work clothes, with Miss Isabel wearing not one but three elaborate antebellum gowns complete with hoop skirt. (Scenic design by Mina Kinukawa, costume design by Mathew LeFebvre, projections design by Miko Simmons, lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, and music direction and composition by Sanford Moore.)
As they say in Hadestown, this is an old song, a sad song, and we know how it ends, but we sing it anyway. With the hope that the Jameses and Henrys of today find their happy ending, that those of the past were denied. With the combined work of these artists, Penumbra's production brings out all of the beauty in this tragic song of our past.
Sugar in Our Wounds continues at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood through March 19.
For a happier tale of queer love of all colors, join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical The Prom, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Read my review of The Prom here, find more info about the event in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for any performance through March 12).