There is no doubt in my mind that Aleshea Harris is one of the best early-career playwrights working today. Her first play, What to Send Up When It Goes Down, is a dirge for Black victims of police violence, combining satirical sketches with ritual in a way that recalls theater’s roots in religious performance. Her second, Is God Is, follows twin sisters seeking revenge against the father who set them on fire. The mood is neoclassical tragedy—one sister is named Racine—the tone closer to a Spaghetti Western. And the script comes with a warning: “This text also includes adventures in typography.” Genre mashing and formal innovation, then, are almost an impulse for Harris, or the clearest way of making sense of the subjects she chooses. The result is invigorating, and both plays evoked for me the rare feeling of seeing and hearing something new.
Her newest, On Sugarland, is a different story. The play is set on Tiparoo Lane, a cul-de-sac in a small Southern town. The residents of three mobile homes live in the shadow of an ongoing war, though the details of the conflict remain vague. Harris’ focus is its victims: fourteen-year-old Sadie (KiKi Layne) lost her mother, and now she refuses to speak to the living but speaks to and even resurrects the dead. Her aunt, Odella (Adeola Role), is also in mourning, and she drinks. Addis (Caleb Eberhardt) is seventeen and determined to become a warrior. His father, Saul (Billy Eugene Jones), doesn’t think the army is taking “boys like” Addis. He’s a soldier himself, and he’s considering returning to the battlefield despite a foot wound that won’t heal. The war, I suspect, is the one that all Black people fight, whether they choose to enlist or not. That is, the characters sound and act no different than people mourning those lost to white supremacist violence. Of course Saul’s foot won’t heal: when the trauma is ongoing, the tissue cannot scar.
Unfortunately, On Sugarland is felled by its own ambitions: there are too many characters and not enough time for each, even at two hours forty-five minutes. Both What to Send Up and Is God Is overflow with ideas, too, but they are more focused and the result is more dramatically rewarding. I’m convinced there is a good play in On Sugarland—Harris just hasn’t found it yet.
On Sugarland runs through March 20th at New York Theatre Workshop. 79 E. 4th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.