Donja R. Love didn’t see his story—stories of black, queer folk throughout history—on stage, so he wrote his own. Thrice.
The playwright’s appropriately titled The Love* Plays trilogy aims to combat the erasure of blackness and queerness in American stories. Each play explores this intersection in different eras, beginning with the Civil War (Sugar in Our Wounds, now playing Off-Broadway) before transitioning to the Civil Rights Movement (the Off-Broadway-bound Fireflies) and the Black Lives Matter movement (In the Middle).
Sheldon Best and Chinaza Uche star as James and Henry, respectively, in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Sugar in Our Wounds, running through July 15 at New York City Center. The two young slaves navigate an unexpected romance on a plantation as abolition looms, coming to terms with the necessity of love in an environment where authority deems some undeserving.
In the interview below, Best and Uche discuss bringing representation to the underrepresented, the narratives of black, queer people who helped shape the world of the play, and telling a story that transcends historical drama.
What knowledge did you have about black, queer experience during this era before joining this play?
Sheldon Best: I Googled “queer slave narratives.” The first article that came up was written by a professor [Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman] that I had studied with at Brandeis, and she had this article called “The Strangest Freaks of Despotism.” It chronicled references to same-sex intimacy or same-sex rape going on on slave plantations. So I had some knowledge coming in, but most of that started when I was doing research on the play.
Chinaza Uche: Honestly, for me, I hadn't exactly thought about it—of it existing. It's such an obvious thought. We started researching about laws that were on the books: Why are these laws here if same-sex love doesn't exist? There's a whole world that hasn't been discovered and isn't talked about a lot. So I came in with not a lot, and the play opened up a wide door of questions that were surprising that I hadn't thought of before.
What were you surprised by?
CU: A lot of the time in slave narratives, they'll describe in detail if a sexual act happens to a woman, but if it's a man, it's glossed over and not talked about. What would you be trying to protect by not describing this happening to a man? What are you evoking by describing it happening to a woman? Concepts of masculinity—that was interesting to think about.
SB: I didn't find things that were necessarily surprising, but things that lined up. There was a different penalty if someone was found having sex with someone of the same sex and the same race, and if they happened to be white, the punishment was different than if someone was having sex with someone of the same sex and they were black. The penalties being different was something where I was surprised that this law existed and carried with it all of society's different “-isms” with it.
How did these findings work their way into the rehearsal process once you were in the room with Donja and [director] Saheem Ali?
SB: We had a really quick rehearsal process, and yet we spent a couple of days just talking at the table about all of the issues that came up. And then when issues would come up later in the rehearsal process, we spent time talking about it. A lot of things came up emotionally, and we needed to take a little break. We would take the time to do that. Saheem would throw on music and we would dance all together as a company because that's what we needed. So it feels like we took the time to do what we needed in order to tell the story, and that wasn't always strictly rehearsing the play.
I imagine it’s crucial to be able to recognize when you need to step away like that.
CU: As much as you're researching the history, the play was so personal to so many people in the room. You are building a character outside of yourself, but you're never trying to play a slave, exactly. Since people are still so underrepresented, there's a lot of pain from both the past and present. So you're researching, but you're also bringing your everyday life in. If I were playing a Roman general, it wouldn't feel the same. Something about this felt it was both of the past and directly of right now.
Do you feel there's a particular resonance to this piece in 2018 beyond the historical aspect?
SB: Definitely. It resonates now to see those kinds of things not only represented, but to see it honestly represented, and in a way that honors those who lived this story years ago and those who are going through it now. A lot of what's happening now—we see the roots of it in the play, and we see how it still goes on today in people's lives. A lot of it sounds like it could be happening right now, and that's because it is.
CU: Donja also does a good job of mixing in historical and today's vernacular, so the characters sound like you a little bit. I think he's doing that intentionally to say, "This is your story. Enslaved people were people, just like you." We see it every night; we see someone who's like, "Oh, this is what it looks like when you haven't seen yourself.” It's intense; if your history's taken away from you and you're living through the world not seeing that, that means you don't exist and that makes you feel like you're alone. There's no context for you existing.
SB: Maybe it's the nerd in me, but I think—
CU: He is a nerd. Write that down.
SB: Pot to the kettle. But Donja is giving us an origin story of sorts. Not that it is the origin, but it is a story showing one family's origin. This trilogy of plays that he's written—you see the resonance of this first play in the last play. And I think that's what he's given us; he's given us an origin story, and that's why I think sometimes the language has today's vernacular and back then's vernacular. Because that's where we got it from; that's where it came from. He's showing us that that history is ours. That was something I found doing my research which was surprising to me: finding things that I would read and go, “Oh my gosh, we do that now.” I thought of that as something you see in, like, a music video. But I didn't realize that that was written in a slave narrative when he was talking about back home before he was captured.
Let’s go back to you calling each other nerds. How would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?
CU: The whole cast was so kind and generous from day one. You can't do the play if it wasn't like that. But you still have to be grateful that that worked out. I feel the same way about Sheldon. We talk a lot in our dressing room. After the show, we're like, “Oh right, we got to go see the audience.” It's nice. Your turn.
SB: I just have to co-sign. The process has been really great getting to connect Chinaza and the other actors in the cast—and Donja and Saheem. We really supported each other in a way that was vital, because the play demands so much of us in our focus and emotion and time, and to have people around you who are there for you—especially when you feel you're completely emotionally drained—is really incredible and a blessing.
CU: And the cast is really funny. You need to have humor. It's genuinely a safe space. People are always bringing in a family story—even after we finished rehearsals—if something just came up into their head about the show, the sharing continues.
With all that your characters endure—a lot of it at the hands of Isabel [played by Fern Cozine, the one white actor in the play]—was it a challenge to create that safe space, or did that trust come naturally?
CU: Honestly, it started with Saheem and Donja in the way they set the room. The energy seems very level-headed and chill. Even though Fern and I do a lot of intense stuff, I always felt very safe, and it felt clear why she was there. I was always clear on her investment in the piece. It hasn't been as complicated as it might seem. She'll be absolutely terrifying on the stage, and the minute she's off, she's not. I think we've all figured out how to do that. And then take the space when you need it. Everyone tries to listen and tries to be sensitive to those things.
One thing I was struck by was the decision to show a sex scene between Henry and Mattie—a heterosexual pairing—but not one between the two of you. What do you make of exploring that intimacy without the physicality?
SB: It's written in there. I don't want to speak for Donja and why certain things are written and certain things you see, but I do recognize that different characters see Henry and see his body. He's sexualized in a way that isn't coming from him. It's the origin story of the hyper-sexualization of the black male. I feel that James sees Henry for more than the body he's in. And so we don't see their intimacy fully because it's something between them that they see in each other—that doesn't get sexualized by the outside world.
CU: I don't think love is defined by a physical act. I think that the play's negotiating that being what these two men have is more than that, and also that, but not limited to that. There's something interesting in watching Henry engage in other physical acts that we might connect to and have it not be the same—to have this be different.
SB: What I said before is not to say that the scene between Mattie and Henry is just her hyper-sexualizing him, but within the context of the play where we see that happening with Isabel, that what's there.
What does it mean to you to tell this story of black, queer love for an audience, including those who are black and queer?
SB: [Castmate] Tiffany [Rachelle Stewart] brought up a quote by Maya Angelou a few weeks ago that's stuck with me: "I am the hope and dream of the slave." When I think of those enslaved people who existed at this intersection of blackness and queerness—the lives that they lived, the lives they couldn't live, the choices they couldn't make—I am so incredibly grateful to Donja for penning this important story and for all who have decided that this story needs to be told on a platform to get people to hear it. It makes me really grateful that I live in a world where that's possible, and I understand that I live in a world where we still have so much further to go. If this work was done, we would be able to tell stories like this and it wouldn't feel so urgent; it would feel reflective and that it honors something in the past. So I feel both honored and, "Let's keep moving forward, because we've still got work to do."
CU: I think this play is doing more good than I could even tell you. To be a part of something that is really affecting people and affecting the way they see and carry themselves—and then affecting other people in the way they see said people—I just feel very lucky to say I think we're actually doing something. That's cool. It feels very purposeful and clear. These are just the first steps.