Sugar: A Naturally Sweetened Life Story

Sugar by Robbie McCauley, ArtsEmerson, Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Paramount Center, 1/20/12-1/29/12,

Reviewed by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) Robbie McCauley begins the story of her life reciting food from her Georgia upbringing in the 1940’s.  In detail, she describes cake and succulent barbecue ribs, the taste of Southern cooking compacted with an African American childhood restricted by racial segregation.  She cheerfully rattles off the names of her favorite dishes and the relatives she best associates with them before revealing the diabetes with which she continues to fight.

The veteran avant-garde actress and Emerson College professor spins a tale that spans decades, touching on her discoveries of sex, the Civil Rights Movement, and Karl Marx, and the day she quits her job to act full time when John F. Kennedy is shot.

She certainly knows how to draw in an apprehensive audience, slowly endearing herself to them with each new chapter of her story.  McCauley backtracks beyond her years, as well, linking sugar cane to both the slavery and diabetes that haunts her identity but rarely confines her.

Accompanying McCauley on piano is Chauncey Moore.  His musical flourishes seamlessly blend and compliment McCauley whether she’s dancing to Mick Jagger or describing an ex-lover.  The flow between them is never quite interrupted until the lights go up.

Director Maureen Shea makes some excellent staging choices. Three folding chairs, when moved around the stage to illustrate particular scenes, leave long, white tracks of sugar.  McCauley attempts to wipe these lines away at one point, but like the events that stick out in her memories, the marks aren’t so easily removed.

Bouncing between dramatic and grimly educational, “Sugar” never lets tragedy bog it down for long.  This show is about triumph and the inspiration with which it leaves its audience is stoic rather than cheesy, honest rather than, well, sugar-coated.

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