By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Brian Egland wears many hats in the theatrical world – stage and film actor, singer, songwriter, photographer and director among them. But when it comes to writing, he may have established himself in very rarefied air with his most recent play Where the Suga Still Sweet, part of the We Will Dream New Works Festival that continues well into June at the André Calloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice on historic Bayou Road in New Orleans.
Egland sets the work at the edge of a massive, barren sugar cane field and his young character Runna, played by Danyaé Asante, speaks directly to the audience as a child might address a playmate. Otherwise, he is mute to the adults who inhabit the desolate world in which he is trapped. He tells us of his “super powers” of closing his ears to obtrusive adults like his Nanny-Mae (Gwendolyn Foxworth), who is raising him, and his ability to run away fleetly from others like the preacher Vern-Mayor (Justin William Davis), who wish to impose their will on him for their own purposes.
When we first meet Runna, he also explains why one strip of land in the field still bears sugar cane. It is, he tells us, the resting place of his playmate Sondelo, who can still appear to him and play with him. (Another one of his “super powers.”) Runna shares his special connection to Sondelo, but is hesitant to reveal more than that, because he is confused by what it may mean and, more to the point, how others may regard it.
Nanny-Mae’s love of Runna is complicated. She is taking care of her great-nephew because she is the only blood relative available to do so, but she is disapproving of his connection to Sondelo because it violates her concepts of propriety. Her answer is to insist he be baptized in the church. Nanny-Mae serves as an elder of the church and she believes Runna’s “homosexual” tendencies will only be washed clean under the rite of baptism and for Runna to accept the teachings of the church. Veteran performer Gwendolyn Foxworth is a delight playing opposite her much younger cast mates.
Egland’s brilliant manuscript transforms the theater into a working church and the audience members into an accepting congregation who have been saved and baptized previously. Runna is compelled to attend the services, but he refused that admonitions of his erstwhile mother and Vern-Mayor. The charismatic preacher is moved by the holy spirit and by a divine mission to save 100 souls, lest his life’s work fall short of that goal.
Davis’ chest-thumping and powerful leaps on stage indicate to all in the church that he possesses the salvation they are seeking. He is bathed in the light of the Lord and is happy to impart that happiness to all who are in need and accept the word he is offering.
Egland introduces the final character in Where the Suga Still Sweet: Incwadi, a self-assured new member of the church, who befriends Runna and allows him to accept himself. Incwadi even interacts with Nanny-Mae, permitting her to drop her hard exterior and to remember what it was like to be young and not so disapproving.
The biggest challenge remains between Vern-Mayor and Runna and the resolution in the second act is what brings the work sharply into focus and allows Runna to stop running away and to begin to communicate with his elders. It is a spiritual healing accomplished through the stewardship of Incwadi’s love and compassion.
But it is a difficult road and one that brings pain to Runna and Vern-Mayor before there is a measure of final redemption.
Lauren Turner Hines, who is the executive director of No Dream Deferred NOLA, the production company sponsoring the We Will Dream New Works Festival, has assembled a talented cast and, along with her assistant director R’Myni Watson, done an especially good job of bringing Egland’s vision from the page onto the stage. Egland’s work, which was created at a residency with the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production’s Rural Performance Production Lab and then went through development with the National Black Theatre through their SOUL Series LAB, was first presented as a virtual reading last summer.
The We Will Dream New Works Festival accepted 40 manuscripts and picked only four of them for presentation at their inaugural biennial festival. Where the Suga Still Sweet was one of the four.
Adachi Pimentel’s set designs allow for locations to be changed easily, while Jasmine Williams’ lighting designs convey a radiant sense of the outdoors and appropriate lighting to convey being indoors during the church scenes. Costumes are well executed by Afri Modiste, LLC, while the sound designs and overall production is managed by Amara Skinner.
Where the Suga Still Sweet continues its run at the André Calloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice, 2541 Bayou Road in New Orleans, LA. through May 21. For tickets click here.