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THEATER REVIEW Sugar in Our Wounds
by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Donja R. Love

At: Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee St. Tickets: . Price: $18-35. Runs through: Nov. 23

Donja R. Love's Sugar in Our Wounds takes place during the Civil War in the shadow of an enormous tree that grows on a plantation, its branches so high that it appears to be reaching all the way to heaven.

As told by Aunt Mama ( Renee Lockett ), the ageless matriarch of a makeshift slave family, the legend of the tree is that it is where all the male ancestors of the current group were hanged and where their spirits still reside. James ( Michael Turrentine ), a young slave who is trying to defy the odds and become a learned Black man, certainly believes it to be true as it explains the odd music the tree makes, the strange lights that can be seen in its branches, and the fact that he keeps hearing it murmur his name.

Also living with James and Aunt Mama is Mattie ( Ashley Crowe ), a 20-year-old who once was favored by the family in the main house as a playmate for Isabel ( Grainne Ortlieb ). But that was a long time ago: After Isabel's father bedded Mattie, she was cast out, beaten and disfigured by cuts to her face; Isabel has grown into a cruel woman, still obsessed with hurting Mattie at every opportunity, but willing to risk punishment to teach James to read for her own private reasons.

The incident that incites the play's main conflicts is the arrival in the shack of alpha male and closeted gay man Henry ( Londen Shannon ), who has just been torn from his own family and sold to this plantation. His arrival upsets the precarious harmony of the makeshift family, as he falls for James ( who is also gay ) while Mattie is falling for him. Interestingly for a show that focuses on same-sex love, Mattie's seduction of Henry is the only sex act played out on the stage. The encounters between Henry and James are absolutely PG, involving no more than kissing.

This is a play rife with modern emotion and argument despite its Civil War setting. While there was certainly gay activity among the slaves on southern plantations, the acceptance of it here feels rather anachronistic. Aunt Mama proclaims, in answer to James's query about whether it is "normal," that not only is it completely common in Africa, but that she herself has been with many women. ( Despite relying on her script at times, Lockett rocks this part; her Aunt Mama is an uncommonly sympathetic, all-knowing, once-vital woman who is weighed down by age and the pain of loss. )

Director Mikael Burke, working on a set by Joy Ahn that suggests more than shows the tree and the shack ( that adds to the somewhat surreal undertones of the mystical aspect of the play ), brings out excellent work in his cast. His creative team is also strong, from Madeleine Byrne's period costumes—both for the slaves and for Isabel—to the very effective lighting ( Eric Watkins ) and sound ( Sam Clapp ) that not only set the scenes but bring the tree to life.

Because this is a melodrama, prepare for some strong emotional responses. ( One woman at the show I attended left at the end openly sobbing. ) Today, decades after the civil rights movement ostensibly made the races equal, in an era in which same-sex marriage is legal across the United States, we continue to witness additions to this persecution brought on by ignorance and hatred. Sugar in Our Wounds is a reminder ( as if we need one ) that the historical fight goes on—and there is not a real ending in sight.

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