For a number of years, actress, director, performance artist, teacher, and writer Robbie McCauley has been creating socio-political works, which draw on her family history, as in Indian Blood and the OBIE winner Sally’s Rape. In Sugar McCauley traces her own life, beginning in childhood in a still segregated Georgia. Life revolved around family, community, cooking, eating, and the garden which supplied the family with healthful food. A happy and seemingly fit child, her cuts and bruises healed slowly. She was told that she must “have a little sugar,” code for diabetes.
McCauley tells us: “Sugar is complicated” – and it is in this play. It connects to love, pleasure, illness, pain, suffering, overcoming, and slavery. She wrote Sugar to rid herself of the shame she felt about the stigma of diabetes and to bring attention to the growing problem of the disease in the African American community.
For the most part, her tale is simply, but compellingly told through a series of monologues about the different phases of her life. Her career in New York’s vibrant alternative theatre in the 1960s and 70s, marriages, politicization, battle with alcohol, experience with motherhood, and constant struggle with illness are recounted rather than enacted as if she were trying to engage the audience in conversation.
Although McCauley is the only actor, it is not a solo piece. Composer-pianist Chauncey Moore shares the stage with McCauley, accompanying her story with music, reacting viscerally to her words, and, at one point, singing “Brown Sugar” with her. His intense concentration adds another of level of meaning to the narrative.
Mirta Tocci’s minimalist set, placed on a wide and shallow platform in the Paramount Theatre’s Black Box, consists mainly of three folding chairs – moved about to indicate the passage of time and change of place – several other props, a few projections, and the piano. A brightly lit sheaf of sugar cane sitting stage right dominates. When McCauley strains to carry it on her back, we are reminded of sugar’s role in slavery while, at the same time, the burden of diabetes she carries is literalized.
At the top of the show, McCauley painstakingly unwraps a candy bar and bites into it with enjoyment. At the end, she carefully injects herself with insulin. Those two powerful images seem to encapsulate her life.
I was absorbed by McCauley’s personal tale and the myriad ways she linked it to history, racism, inequality, and the human experience. Yet, I did not become emotionally involved, perhaps because the piece does not use conventional dramatic techniques such as revelations and climaxes. The story done, the performance trails off as McCauley dances off the stage and the lights go down.
This performance piece, which is produced in collaboration with the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College, successfully unites the professional and academic sides of the institution. Both Robbie McCauley and director Maureen Shea are professors of theatre at the college.
Presented by ArtsEmerson (Black Box at the Paramount Theatre, Boston, MA)
WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY ROBBIE McCAULEY
ORIGINAL MUSIC COMPOSED AND PERFORMED BY CHAUNCEY MOORE
DIRECTED BY MAUREEN SHEA
SET AND PROJECTIONS COSTUMES LIGHTINGDESIGNED BY
MIRTA TOCCI RAFAEL JAEN KEVIN SEMAGIN
SOUND DESIGNED BY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR STAGE MANAGER
DARBY SMOTHERMAN TARA BROOKE WATKINS REBECCA K. DAVID
Sugar was created in collaboration with Artists in Context.