Robbie McCauley dipped her thins hands gingerly into two burlap sacks by her sides. One was labeled “100% Brown Sugar.” The other, “100% White Sugar.” She let the fine grains slip through fistfuls of the stuff, dusting off her hands with an unhurried deliberateness.
Unhurried and deliberate best defines Robbie’s entire piece, Sugar. Written and performed by the artist herself, Sugar is about many things. It is about race and about flaky biscuits and johnnycakes; it is about Southern Sunday bests and it is about diabetes; it is about the Rolling Stones and other vices, and it is about growing old. But what shines through all these themes, stringing them together like bunches of sugarcane, is Robbie’s vivacity and comfort in her own skin. Sugar is Robbie, Robbie is Sugar.
When Robbie spoke to our African American Theatre and Drama class a few weeks earlier, she loosely defined Sugar as “a story of personal vigor,” as one that “connected to her people, her history, her country, her society, and her world.” Robbie weaves tradition into her work, with the idea of storytelling at the heart of her performance. Oftentimes, these stories branched from family history, combining delightful anecdotes of preparing Sunday breakfast that had the audience craving cholesterol, with more despicable instances of racial discrimination at hospitals. For Robbie, race matters boil down to a time when she hoped white people would someday stop being so ignorant. Like sugar or diabetes, she said, racism is something you might be inclined to at birth, but “it doesn’t have to kill you.”
The way Robbie handled race in the piece was as much a reflection of herself as any other aspect of the play: straightforward, confident, and cool. Beyond all things, Robbie was downright cool, the way she transitioned like water from poetic recitations to her best Mick Jagger imitation across the floor. Even sitting center stage and peeling back the skin of an avocado seemed cool when she did it, reminding us that, “if you stopped eating bad food, good food tasted good.”
We watched as she enjoyed one half of the fruit, saving the rest for later, and letting out a personable yum at the first bite.
This personability sailed through Sugar. No matter how cool and collected Robbie seemed, she was dedicated to her art and to telling her story. At any given moment, the audience was unsure whether a line of speech was an improvised natural reaction, or part of her intended script. The confessional nature helped create a sense that you could sit down with Robbie and maybe feel in awe of her creativity, but not intimidated by her. Having heard her speak before I saw her work confirmed this notion for me, and I wondered if this naked honesty was bred in the revolutionary period during which Robbie began to work, including her time as an original cast member of Ntzoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.
One of these raw moments that struck me the most was when Robbie, with the help of her musician Chauncey Moore, lifted a bushel of sugarcane onto her back and trudged across the stage with its burden. The image was not unlike Christ carrying his cross, and the audience was very viscerally reminded of the burden that sugar has caused in the artist’s life. Perhaps the most obvious, of course, is Type 1 diabetes. But sugar also refers to love, to food, to vices, to family history, to Robbie’s creative energy, and most of all, to her “personal vigor.”
Next semester, Robbie McCauley joins Boston College Theatre Department as the J. Donald Monan S.J Professor of Theatre Arts. Her work encompasses a series of autobiographical solo performance pieces, the most famous being Sally’s Rape, which won a Bessie Award in 1990 and the Obie Award for Best Play in 1992.