Thursday, January 26, 2012

Memories of underdevelopment

Photo by Paul Marotta

This season ArtsEmerson has explicitly stated that some of its presentations have been in a state of development.  I'm not sure that's the official line on Robbie McCauley's one-woman show Sugar (which plays through this weekend), but it probably should be.  The talented Ms. McCauley's meditation on her long involvement with the title topic, through her affliction with diabetes (and its entwinement with race, life, and art) certainly has its moments - largely because McCauley (above), who carved out a distinguished career in theatre and dance before joining the Emerson faculty, has lived a life rich in moments large and small, and she's practically a perfect theatrical raconteur - warm yet wry,with a low-key, skeptical dignity.

But so far her piece has yet to coalesce into the kind of political and personal statement that it could be, and we often feel that gap.  Yes, you read that right - the Hub Review has found a script in which race should figure more prominently than it currently does.  (Somewhere, pigs are on the wing through the frozen caverns of Hell.)

It's not that the perceptive Ms McCauley doesn't appreciate the breadth and depth of her theme; she does.  Sugar, as she puts it, is "complicated." And so are our politics, and inevitably, our commitment to health care for everyone. McCauley explicitly acknowledges that sugar's deadly shadow, diabetes, exacts a disproportionate toll among communities of color largely because a different kind of sweetness - the sick sweetness of racist feeling, and the politics that flow from it - allows it to. She may have lived through a civil rights revolution, but she knows only too well that entrenched modes of privilege have a way of surviving changes in the legal code.

Indeed, the actress herself is a piercing example of the terrible price this quiet plague can exact from a human being (she lost the lead in the premiere of For Colored Girls . . . due to diabetic exhaustion, and so missed her chance at a Tony; only later was she able to join the second Broadway cast).  The trouble is that in the retelling of her struggle against the bad hands and missed chances that American life dealt her, the personal rarely ramifies into the political.  As the episodes of her story unfold, we nod along in sympathy, but are somehow rarely moved to outrage or action.

Of course in some ways McCauley is wise to keep her focus tight, on the specifics of her own life; she triumphed over her disease, after all; she played on Broadway, knew everyone and everything in her heyday in New York, and is now enjoying a whole new late-life career when, as she puts it, according to the statistics, "I shouldn't even be here."  Still, the disease has taken its toll, and her performance is perhaps at its most memorable when she's most forthright about facing down the shame that in some quarters still hovers over this condition and its impact; she's honest about the disease's debilitating sexual effects, for instance, and even calmly gives herself an insulin shot on stage, because, of course, dignity should always be accorded the body and its natural needs.

But how to interweave that personal empowerment into the larger political picture?  This is where Ms. McCauley seems at loose ends.  Her personal imagery holds us - ironically enough, particularly her reminiscences of Southern home cooking - and her story is compelling.  How and when will it become everyone's story?  I'm not sure - but there are already moments in which you can feel the full scope of her theme moving beneath her performance.  Near the close of the show, she lifts a huge pack of sugar cane onto her back, and, stooped over from the effort, makes her way determinedly across the stage.  And for a moment, race, history, culture, and even economics seem to be woven together into an inspired metaphor.  With a few more moments like that one, Sugar could be one long theatrical (and political) high.

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