I try not to show any emotion when I attend plays as a critic and not just an audience member, but I couldn't help but shed some tears during the Chicago premiere of Donja R. Love's Sugar in Our Wounds, a romantic drama about two enslaved Black men who find love and home in each other as the Civil War rages on. Produced by First Floor Theater and directed by Mikael Burke, the play is the first in a trilogy that explores the forgotten stories of Black queers, as their existence has been largely erased by history.
Beneath Joy Ahn's beautifully decorated set featuring an intricately designed tree said to "stretch up to heaven," we meet three slaves who have formed a family unit after being torn from their families of origin: James (played with grace and vulnerability by Michael Turrentine), Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett), and Mattie (Ashley Crowe). When a stranger named Henry (Londen Shannon) walks into their shack, they take him in and teach him that in order to make it back to his family, he has to be smart about his movements. Soon, a romantic bond is formed between James and Henry, and the two find a happiness in each other that they have not felt since being ripped away from their first families
The script is full of poetic lines, especially within scenes shared by Henry and James, who say that their hearts sing the same song and that they feel closer to God when they're with each other. While the play certainly tugs at heartstrings, I don't think it says anything new about queer relationships in history but merely reminds us that their love has routinely ended in tragedy.
Nonetheless, Sugar in Our Wounds hurts so good that you can't help but sympathize with our protagonists as they find love and then lose it—and as I looked around the audience after the play ended, I saw I wasn't the only one who'd succumbed to my tears. v