Southern trees, as the lyric goes, bear a strange fruit. That Billie Holiday song was written to protest the lynching of Black people in the American South.
Lynchings were widespread in the South from the 1830s to the 1960s; the last known lynching in the United States was that of Michael Donald in 1981. To some, the extrajudicial killings by police that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests are lynching’s legacy.
“Sugar in Our Wounds,” Donja R. Love’s play about love, slavery and tragedy, takes place in front of a tree that has seen generations of Black men hanged from its branches. Love’s poetic script is written in dialect and is part of his trilogy of plays that explore queer love at pivotal points in Black history.
Set in the South in 1862, “Sugar” centers on James and Henry, two enslaved men drawn to each other on a plantation.
“It’s a love story, and one that we don’t typically get to see or hear about,” says Lucretia Anderson, director of the Richmond Triangle Players production opening this week. “It’s the story of two enslaved men who fall in love, despite all of the adversity and despite all of the horror that is happening around them. They’re able to find space to find this love that is really sweet and pure and innocent. They find it in the most unlikely of places and circumstances.”
At the play’s start, James is part of an informal family of enslaved people who have lost their own familial connections because of the slave trade. When Henry comes to the plantation after recently being ripped away from his own family, he and James begin a relationship. The mystical tree, which bears witness to the proceedings, sings at points in the play.
Jónel Jones, who plays James, says that for all the show’s heaviness, people will relate to the characters and be touched by the show’s message of love.
“I hope people can take away the power of being kind to one another and being sweet and soft, but also seeing the truth of untold stories in American history, seeing their power and being able to find joy in the darkest of places,” he says, adding that imagining himself in the place of his ancestors and encountering the oppression of being an enslaved person has been a revealing and emotional experience.
“Each time we step into a new scene, we don’t know how it’s going to impact us,” Jones says. “We don’t know what new discoveries we’re going to find, and we just don’t know what place we’re going to go to each time.”
Charlotte Grace Smith, who portrays the enslaver’s daughter Isabel, says the show illustrates both the ugly and beautiful parts of American history. In the play, her character takes a dangerous interest in Henry.
“She’s the antagonist. She is the plantation owner’s daughter, and she serves the story to show how dehumanizing and inhumane slavery was,” she says. “She likes to touch things she can’t, and the people that are touched by her have to deal with those repercussions.”
Smith says the play is heartbreaking.
“It’s such a powerful show,” Smith says. “You can’t go out of that show in the same mindset that you came in [with].”
More than anything, Anderson says the show is about the power of love and resiliency in the midst of struggle.
“You’re going to leave with a different understanding of what it means to find joy in the darkest of times, and, maybe, a new lens on what love is and what love can be,” she says.
“Sugar in Our Wounds” takes place April 20-May 14 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. For more information, visit rtriangle.org or call (804) 346-8113.