Aleshea Harris’ third New York stage play following her form-bending Is God Is and What to Send Up When It Goes Down is epic in all senses of the word: it includes poetry, dance, incantation, comedy and drama. The new play On Sugarland, an anti-war drama, also harks back to the Greeks, borrowing characters from Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ The Trojan Women, as well as the concept of the Chorus. It tells three interwoven stories as well as one communal one and ends with a shocking finale that is the hallmark of Greek tragedy. Director Whitney White’s production with its cast of 14 is quite versatile and lives up to its lofty task.
While all of the actors give very well defined performances, the audience is first confronted with the play’s setting by Adam Rigg for the cul-de-sac called Sugarland at the end of Tiparoo Lane in a small city in the American South, the home to its Black residents. Built on three levels, the stage is a circular green expanse that suggests an island. The lowest level is a railroad track. On the middle level, is a shrine to dead soldiers in an endless and continuing nameless war: old military boots, painted rocks, a birdbath, decorative tires, recycled metal sculptures, hand-painted signs, a tie, jewelry and military medals, etc.
On the third level, up several wooden staircases, are three trailers, the homes to inhabitants who are the main characters of the play. In the first one (pink) lives grieving Odella who has buried her husband Freddy and her sister Sergeant Iola Marie Pritchard, both casualties of the war. She is bringing up her niece Sadie who has had a trauma which has rendered her mute. In the second one (blue) live Evelyn and her sister Tisha who tends the Sugarland memorial. Tisha has buried their father and her son Mikey, both killed in the never-ending war. In the third and last one (yellow) live Staff Sergeant Saul Greenwood, a discharged soldier because of a foot wound which will not heal, and his mentally challenged 17-year-old son Addis, who spends his days patrolling Sugarland.
However, each one has a story of his or her own. Although Sadie is mute, we hear her monologues in which she exhorts her ancestors which both open and close the play. Much like Euripides’ Cassandra, in Greek mythology, she knows much history which no one else is interested in. Her aunt is often drunk as a way of dealing with her losses. We don’t know what Evelyn used to be like, but she seems to be living a delusional life believing herself to be a society lady with very easily offended sensibilities, while at the same time markedly criticized by her down-to-earth pragmatic and realistic sister. Both women seem to be a tribute to characters in Tennessee Williams, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire and “Gnadiges Fraulein” from Two Slapstick Tragedies.
However, it is Saul and his son whose story seems to propel the play. Saul has been discharged due to a bleeding foot that no one seems to be able to heal. Inspired by the title character in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the Trojan Warrior who was abandoned on an island because of the horrible smell of his wound, but then when his crossbow and arm were needed, young warrior Neoptolemus is sent to trick him into giving up his bow. Here Saul is attempting to reenlist after eight years of inactivity but he keeps being rejected by the recruiting office. His son Addis wishes to join up and prove his valor but both his father and his mental state keep him from being eligible.
Periodically, the denizens of Sugarland and a chorus-like mob called The Rowdy (eight idle young men and women) conduct memorial ceremonies for dead conscripted soldiers that they refer to as “Hollering” which relieves their grief. Ultimately, we discover the toll that the war is having on the Black residents of Sugarland who are supplying an endless parade of young soldiers.
The language of the play is both realistic and poetic, making strong use of the technique of anaphora, in which a succession of words begins a series of lines to create a rhythmic effect. In addition, there are eulogies that are like the choral passages in Greek theater. Many of the characters have monologues in which they refer to themselves in the third person as though reporting on someone else.
As staged by 2020 Obie Award-winning director White, who has also worked with Harris on What to Send Up When It Goes Down, the play both moves swiftly as well as creates indelible characterizations. As Saul, in constant pain from his wound but indomitable in spirit, Billy Eugene Jones put us in mind of the young Denzel Washington. KiKi Layne’s Sadie is extremely communicative though she never speaks to the other characters. As the delusional Evelyn, Stephanie Berry who wears a succession of gowns by designer Qween Jean that would make Williams’ Blanche DuBois jealous, steals every scene she is in. Lizan Mitchell as her sister Tisha is the perfect foil for her flights of fancy. Adeola Role as Odella, Sadie’s aunt who spends part of every single day drunk, is as poignant as a character out of Eugene O’Neill. While Caleb Eberhardt plays a mentally challenged character we have seen before, his passionate intensity makes Addis entirely his own.
Alesha Harris’ On Sugarland is both demanding and rewarding, requiring patience and fortitude as the long play makes its way to its shocking conclusion. It has been given an excellent production by director Whitney White and a cast that is able to make its characters into folk heroes and heroines as though they are Greek archetypes – which in many cases they are. Ironically, the play has new resonance in this time when a totally unnecessary war has broken out in Eastern Europe and civilians are being called up to fight for their country. On one level, the play seems almost prophetic, but throughout history there have always been ongoing and meaningless wars.
On Sugarland (through March 20, 2022)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission