The creators of 'On Sugarland' build a site of mourning and repair

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The creators of 'On Sugarland' build a site of mourning and repair
Kiki Layne, left, and Adeola Role in the play “on Sugarland” at the New York Theater Workshop in New York, Feb. 3, 2022. Ritual and healing are at the center of Whitney White and Aleshea Harris’s new play, "on Sugarland," about a Black community that loses its members to a perpetual war. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Soyica Diggs Colbert

NEW YORK, NY.- In the mobile home-lined cul-de-sac at the center of the new play “On Sugarland,” grief is pervasive. A memorial of dog tags, boots and other personal items of fallen soldiers sits center stage, a reminder of a community’s losses. Daily rituals — from services with singing, dancing and shouting to a boy shaving his father’s chin — move mourning from expressions of sorrow to utterances and activities that keep the dead in communion with the residents.

“We got a frequency other folk can’t pick up on,” one character says.

“On Sugarland,” about a community that is constantly losing its members to a perpetual war, gives new meaning to what Ralph Ellison called the lower frequencies. A register, in this case, that situates life and death on a continuum. The play itself is the latest collaboration between playwright Aleshea Harris and playwright and director Whitney White, who previously worked together on the acclaimed “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.” That work, combining an interactive ritual performance with an absurdist parody, bore witness to the many deaths of Black people to police and vigilante violence. Bearing witness is a responsibility that expands justice, James Baldwin wrote.

“On Sugarland,” in previews at New York Theater Workshop, follows a preadolescent Sadie as she comes to terms with her mother’s death in combat. The weight of the loss, however, does not prevent her from tapping into her superpower — invisibility. Sadie uses it to her advantage. She can make the dead walk. She can also make the dead talk. And she can act as a conduit to help ease the sting of death. The naming of gods, references to super powers and the repetition of language heighten the play’s sense of reality.

Harris, 40, who is also a spoken-word poet, uses her text to reshape words. Her characters whisper, shout, elongate a vowel or express rhythmic cadence, allowing language to escape the familiar. “I’m not really a singer, but I can hold a tune,” Harris said. “I think a lot about the sonic experience of the things that I’m writing. I feel like they need to hit the right note in order to resonate the way that I want them to.”

She showcased her ability to mix genres — spaghetti Western, tragedy and hip-hop — in “Is God Is,” a tale of twins enacting a revenge fantasy. Just as multifaceted, “On Sugarland” features a Greek chorus called the Rowdy and draws elements from Southern gothic, Afro-surrealism and hip-hop, producing sounds that prepare the audience for the otherworldly occurrences that eventually unfold.

White, 36, also an actor and musician who grew up in Chicago, often incorporates aural traditions into her work as well. Music was always there. Reflecting on her time at Catholic school, she said: “We had liturgical music, which is where you sit and learn the songs, old school, and you look at the hymnals, and you learn to read music and sing. Religious music was how I started loving the arts and loving music. Then I got involved with theater.”

Of Harris’ work, White said: “It has a rhythm and a feeling. It feels like you’re hearing notes, and tones and movements.”

Echoing Ntozake Shange’s choreopoetic drama “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which is set to return to Broadway in April, and the works of other Black arts movement playwrights, including Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and Sonia Sanchez, “On Sugarland” mines the wealth of characteristic Black expression without reproducing stereotypes. It presents a vengeful young girl; her aunt who is suffering from addiction; and a sensuous elderly neighbor who finds frumpiness offensive.

In a recent interview, Harris and White talked about their new work and how their collaborations have helped them evolve as artists. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How does the play create new ways to see Black women?

WHITE: None of them are stereotypes. None of them are tropes I’ve seen before. While they do dip into things that are familiar to me, they’re not flat, they’re quite complex, they’re just delicious. If you look at all of the roles [in Harris’ work], from “Is God Is” to “What to Send Up” to “On Sugarland,” these three plays create work that people can sink their teeth into for their whole lifetime — and what a gift is that.

HARRIS: It was with great delight that I presented the elder women. I was very excited to create a role for two elder Black women who had a lot of meat inside of their stories and got to be very engaged and activated inside of the tale. I hope it feels like a boon to other Black women who are bearing witness to the work.

Q: What types of cultural and theatrical rituals does your work draw from?

HARRIS: I remember when I started writing “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” that my grad school mentor, Douglas Kearney, reminded me that a ritual is meant to bring something into being, and that just felt like a provocation. For the residents of the cul-de-sac in “On Sugarland,” I was really interested in exploring what their ritual of grieving could be. That wasn’t quite a funeral; that was another spiritual expression of care.

WHITE: There’s a great range of emotion, and ritual is complex. You’ll go to a family service, one person’s laughing, one person’s crying, one person’s being inappropriate. It is like this multifaceted emotive color wheel of Black life that I feel like it is my job to make sure it’s onstage. Because so often the way Black ritual is depicted onstage and on screen is this very grim, one-noted thing. Actually, like the life cycle, communities and individuals within those communities possess so much. I want to make sure that my people are as alive, and specific, and colorful, and human as possible.

Q: What inspired the chorus, or as they are named, the Rowdy?

HARRIS: The chorus is embodying the innocence of the community and the Black community at large, an innocence that’s criminalized. There’s this language from Evelyn [a character in the play] about the chicks being snatched up from beneath their mothers, and they’re conscripted, they’re being sent off to fight in the war, so their numbers are dwindling.

My psychic proposition is to remind us that we are complex, that there’s nothing inherently bad. That there’s great joy in what we do. Just in Black expression, Black mundane expression around the block is gorgeous. It isn’t always held up as such. The proposition is to see ourselves with great complexity and love.

WHITE: Aleshea sent me a video early on in the process, and she said, “This is the video that inspired the Rowdy.” It’s this beautiful group of young Black people with this speaker, just radically taking up space in a celebratory way that moves through their bodies.

When I watch that video, it reminds me of being young in Chicago, growing up, spending time on the South Side with all these other young Black people my age. We would just take over the community, and that wasn’t a negative thing — it was a beautiful thing. It’s so sad that our communities so often are criminalized and viewed in these negative ways. What does it mean to see a group of young people in the prime of their lives die off one by one? What does that say about what these characters are experiencing in the world?

Q: How have you, as artists, changed through your collaboration?

WHITE: Aleshea is making work that is giving voice to the deepest parts of the Black experience. I feel that the way she has changed my work is that I realize I don’t have to settle on stereotypes. I don’t have to settle with naturalism. I don’t have to do things the safe way.

The work can be as aesthetically challenging as it is culturally significant. I don’t have to settle until I have work that is as strong and rigorous as possible. Working with her has changed my understandings of what I know to be possible and what I’ve always believed was possible. Black work can be as experimental and aesthetically excellent as anything else, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

HARRIS: Working with Whitney has emboldened me and reminded me that what I want to do is possible. The weird things that I’m doing with language on the page can ring, can scream in a body. Let’s be disruptive of respectability politics. Whitney also understands my desire to present Black women with great muscularity onstage. We understand the rules. We understand how we should conduct ourselves. We were taught how to present ourselves in the world so that we could stay safe. I think she agrees with me that those things aren’t keeping us safe. So, we might as well be fearless.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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