‘On Sugarland’ Off Broadway Review: Aleshea Harris’ Sweeping Look at Black Life Amid Endless Wars

Harris nods to Tennessee Williams in her look at life in a Southern cul-de-sac near an Army base

on sugarland
Photo: Joan Marcus

Blanche du Bois is alive and well and living near an Army camp on a cul-de-sac called Sugarland. In rehearsals for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Claire Bloom once asked Tennessee Williams what happens to his distraught heroine after the plays ends. Williams told Bloom that Blanche went on to open a little shop somewhere. In other words, she survives.

In Aleshea Harris’ multifaceted new play, “On Sugarland,” which opened Thursday at the New York Theatre Workshop, her colorful character Evelyn more than survives. As embodied by Stephanie Berry in a truly riveting and joyful performance, Evelyn repeatedly tells the patriotic inhabitants of Sugarland how they’ve been duped by their government. Luckily for theatergoers, Evelyn still gets to wear Blanche’s tiara and Mardi Gras dress, among other terrific ensembles (costumes by Qween Jean).

Since this review is written by a real “Streetcar” junkie, what you’re reading might be a very minority report on Harris’ play and its nods to Williams’ classic. In the first few scenes of “On Sugarland” – this two-act play runs two hours, 40 minutes – Evelyn appears as one of those supporting-player eccentrics who shows up occasionally to enliven things. It seems the major activity on Sugarland, beyond enlisting in the Army, is holding funerals.

No family here is intact; a parent or a sibling or a child is missing to “the war,” which is never identified. There are so many wars nowadays. Evelyn’s sister, Tisha (the always extraordinary Lizan Mitchell), maintains a cemetery of mementos belonging to the fallen, and she talks to her dead soldier-son through what appears to be the wheel of a bicycle. Dedicated to life and beautiful things like fabulous hair and makeup, Evelyn calls her sister’s glittering monument to death a “junkyard.”

In the beginning, Tisha emerges as the sane sister (yes, I kept thinking of an old Stella), while Evelyn is the neighborhood kook. Even though “On Sugarland” is a fierce antiwar drama, Evelyn and Tisha lace the evening with ribald humor and witty sibling rivalry.

The comic relief is as insightful as it is necessary, because “On Sugarland” is much more than another “Streetcar” debate on the feminine and the masculine, the battle between beauty and brute force. It’s also about genocide. On the Sugarland cul-de-sac, a soldier-father (Billy Eugene Jones) has returned from the war seriously wounded, and now his son (Caleb Eberhardt) wants to follow in his mangled footsteps. In another trailer, a widow (Adeola Role) has drifted into alcoholism following the deaths of her soldier-sister and soldier-husband, who has been branded a deserter. And her niece, Sadie (KiKi Layne), has spoken to no one since her soldier-mother died in combat. According to the Army, the inhabitants of Sugarland are completely dispensable.

On the edges of this drama is a chorus of young people that Harris calls the Rowdy (Thomas Walter Booker, Xavier Scott Evans, Mister Fitzgerald, Josh Fulton, Charisma Glasper, Kai Heath, Shemar Yanick Jonas and Mariyea). The Rowdy is one big critical voice that never has a bad thing to say about Evelyn despite her obvious peculiarities. They are a gossipy group, and the Rowdy questions if some of those wounded or dead soldiers are really the heroes the Army says they are. The Rowdy does participate in the funerals, which are called “hollers,” and as that word suggests, these ceremonies inspire voices to be raised and raised loudly.

While Sadie remains mute to the other characters, she speaks to us. Sadie tells stories that, over the course of the play, become a leitmotif of murder. Her great-great-great grandmother had a taste for it, and as Sadie imagines her beloved ancestor’s repeated rampages, these killings are seen as not only acts of defiance but liberation.

Harris ends “On Sugarland” with one such spectacular act of defiance and liberation, and she doesn’t put it in the distant past.

Whitney White’s direction of his actors is masterful. Together with Berry and Mitchell’s brilliant comedy routine, Jones and Layne in their far more somber roles help to keep the many disparate elements of “On Sugarland” running on the same track. Adam Rigg’s purposefully messy set design even separates the stage from the audience with railroad tracks. A government that asks the ultimate sacrifice of these people in turn has no respect for them. Those same railroad tracks run right through the middle of Sugarland’s cemetery.

“On Sugarland” ends with not one but two light-and-sound shows (by Amith Chandrashaker and Mikaal Sulaiman). Perhaps just one would be better. Layne’s delivery of the play’s final scene speaks more powerfully than any strobe effects ever can.