'On Sugarland' review: A nameless war and too many wounds to count

Let’s start with the war. Not the headline-grabbing war. Neither Iraq nor Vietnam. I speak of war as a metaphor. And in the realm of...


Let’s start with the war. Not the headline-grabbing war. Neither Iraq nor Vietnam. I speak of war as a metaphor. And in the realm of metaphor, anything can happen: a veteran’s wound may continually – and inexplicably – bleed for years, and the daughter of a slain soldier may have the ability to raise the dead.

This allegorical war, complete with a weathered officer and a junior necromancer, belongs to the world of “On Sugarland”, a beautifully produced piece that struggles to fulfill its ambitions. “On Sugarland,” which opened Thursday night at the New York Theater Workshop, is the latest from Obie-winning playwright Aleshea Harris (“Is God,” “What to send when it breaks down”), whose work often elevates the daily trauma of being alive, especially as a black person, to the level of poetry through heightened language, songs, rituals and symbols.

Speaking of symbols, this is how the heavy-drinking Odella, played by Adeola Role with awkward vulnerability, describes Sugarland, a makeshift memorial of odds and ends that sits in the cul-de-sac of mobile homes where she lives with her teenage niece, Sadi (KiKi Layne, from the most exquisite to the most discreet). Sugarland is just a symbol, Odella reminds Sadie, though not everyone agrees; a neighbor, tired of the mourning, dismisses it as “a kind of horrible carnival graveyard”.

In an early scene, Odella and Sadie are on their way to the funeral of Sadie’s mother, Sergeant Iola Marie, who died in the Unnamed War. She will be commemorated in Sugarland, where a helmet, sashes, dog tags, bottles and other items are displayed in vertical posts to remember local war dead. Each funeral is honored with what locals call a “howl,” a ritual of weeping and wailing led by Staff Sergeant Saul Greenwood (Billy Eugene Jones, Perfection). He had enlisted at Iola and today suffers from both psychological and physical trauma: on his right foot there is a wound that does not heal.

And yet, Saul extols the virtues of being a soldier and encourages his teenage son, Addis (a deeply desperate Caleb Eberhardt), to imagine himself a warrior – while forbidding him to enlist because Addis is intellectually disabled. Tisha (the underused Lizan Mitchell), a woman in her sixties who speaks to her deceased son through the sacred memorial and lives with her vain and irreverent sister Evelyn (Stephanie Berry, the play’s comedic delight) takes care of Sugarland. Sadie, who doesn’t speak except for her lengthy monologues to the audience, watches it all unfold mostly from backstage. She can raise the dead, she reveals, and summons several generations of ancestors to help her find her mother from beyond the grave.

There are a lot of characters and a lot of plot in this nearly three hour production. A neighborhood Greek children’s choir called the Rowdy completes the cast of 14. The choir isn’t the only element Harris has borrowed from the Greeks; “On Sugarland” was inspired by Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes”, about two soldiers who try to persuade a master archer with a chronic foot injury to join the Trojan War. Both works involve a sick soldier, but it is unclear whether Harris makes deeper connections to Sophocles’ work or aspires to a dialogue between his play and the classic.

Harris is certainly not the only playwright who writes lyrical dialogue with her own internal meter, but she is one of the best navigators of changes in language and registers, even within the same scene. The result is tasty figurative gumdrops that subtly illuminate the characters’ inner thoughts, like Evelyn’s glamorous description of the setting sun, which she says looks “like a starlet whose solo is over.” But Harris struggles with an overambitious story. “On Sugarland” is unable to adequately unpack its cornucopia of themes: post-traumatic stress disorder, black masculinity, the history of black soldiers, black women struggling against racism and misogyny, the way black women react to grief, the choices black women make about their bodies in a world of prejudice.

Even the opposing force in the play’s metaphorical war is a mystery: maybe it’s any country or people the US government calls the enemy, or maybe it’s the racist citizens in the backyards of the characters. The problem isn’t a lack of exposure; is that “On Sugarland” is inconsistent in the vocabulary it constructs.

The characters suffer from it too; they are loaded with so many symbolic meanings that their roles become confused and there is little room for their real development. In Evelyn, who talks about pregnancy and at one point sheds tears of blood, I found allusions to the phenomenon of bleeding statues of the Virgin Mary and to the higher pregnancy death rates for black women. I wondered if Sadie, with her supernatural ability and muteness, could be an archetypal prophet figure, like Tiresias, the blind diviner of Greek dramas.

In other words, I have never known the limits of metaphors.

With his leadership, Whitney White sometimes dips too far into melodrama, but otherwise adapts nimbly to shifts in tone and key shifts in Harris’ script. Raja Feather Kelly’s electric choreography adds a physical syncopation (trampling, walking, stepping, dancing) that complements the rhythms of the dialogue.

The most intoxicating moments in the play are when all these bodies scream on stage, each moving in such carefully chosen directions in postures so carefully structured that they become like a liberated tableau. (The Rowdy’s boisterous quality of noise, combative movements, and sheer volume are radical; these performers push back against the idea that black people should act softly and non-threateningly for the comfort of white people.) The cast’s clever costumes are by Qween Jean, whose designs include the casual streetwear of Rowdy and Evelyn’s candy pink ball gown.

Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design is its own eloquent form of storytelling – from the soft sepia light of a lone streetlamp to the vertical Gatorade green lights that flank the stage – and, at times, works alongside the bold original music of Starr Busby to turn the space into a club.

And Adam Rigg’s dynamic set design cleverly uses a multi-layered layout to allow the action to unfold at different heights: at the top are three mobile homes, windows revealing figures arguing or drinking at their homes; the middle level is a circular grassy platform, the parcel of land called Sugarland; below, train tracks wind around Sugarland and as far as the eye can see.

“We’re strong We’re brave We’re fast / We aim and… We never miss,” Sadie says of the women in her family. The story of “On Sugarland”, however, flounders at times; it’s hard to hit the bullseye when a mess of targets obscures your field of vision.

About Sugarland
Through March 20 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Duration: 2h40.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'On Sugarland' review: A nameless war and too many wounds to count
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