|(Photo courtesy of
Robbie McCauley knows the sweet and the bitter in life full well.
A remarkable Renaissance woman, she has won deserved acclaim as a wide-ranging educator and envelope-pushing writer, director and actress.
Witness her ADELCO, Bessie and OBIE Awards for performance in dance and theater. During her challenging early years, the Emerson College professor encountered racism and discrimination firsthand — especially in various Southern states. Perhaps as striking as anything about her rich life journey is her tenacious battle with diabetes, a struggle she is documenting forcefully on the Jackie Liebergott Black Box stage at the Paramount Center in a moving but overly busy performance piece called “Sugar” (through Sunday; 617-824-8400 or artsemerson.org).
Billed as “A Sugar-Free Jam on Diabetes and Life,” McCauley’s 90-minute one-woman show — with a nuanced original score composed and performed by Chauncey Moore (Boston College music professor in its African and African Diaspora Studies Program) — chronicles the pleasure and pain of her life with diabetes.
Moore’s lyrical piano stretches underscore her fond memories about the culinary bounty of her youth. Theatergoers should make sure to eat before seeing “Sugar” for there are vivid descriptions about chili hot dogs, corn bread, chocolate cake and other family specialties that will more than whet their appetites.
At the same time, McCauley unflinchingly recalls the hatred that led to whites-only pools and water fountains. Here the piano evokes the attendant discord and tension. Still, her family “talked with pride” of black pools and movies.
It was during this bittersweet childhood that McCauley discovered she had “a little bit of sugar” or diabetes. She poignantly remembers a doctor — later killed by the KKK — who treated her at home. There are also informative moments about her own use of insulin injections as well as the alarming connections between diabetes and such serious complications as heart disease and amputation.
McCauley observes that the history of sugar is complicated — from an ingredient in wonderfully sweet foods to an integral element of slavery with Africans making sugar cane, rum and molasses in the New World.
Veteran writer-director McCauley — effectively directed by Maureen Shea — develops the image of sugar into a compelling metaphor for the sweetness of family life and her own experiences as a student of legendary director Lloyd Richards and a budding actress.
McCauley’s insights about sugar and slavery are visually documented as she painstakingly dragged two large sacks of sugar across the Liebergott Stage during her arresting explanation.
Where her very potent metaphor loses some of its force is in passages where she speaks of fellow black performers. So many accomplished actors are mentioned — Gilbert Moses, Robert Hooks, Oba Babatunde, Rosalind Cash and Gloria Foster — that such moments seem like namedropping rather than the praise and cultural history that McCauley intends. Surely she could do full justice to such theater memories in a separate show someday. Another earnest if uneven segment involves audience participation. Volunteer audience members provide an immediate one-word response to a question-at the opening — a question about the war in Afghanistan — but the results prove mixed as a connection to the show itself.
Despite these brief stretches of over-busy reference and mildly enlightening audience involvement, “Sugar” proves itself a vital theatrical experience and a timely and provocative one.
Along with fascinating material about her own bittersweet but transcendent experiences, McCauley delivers an important reminder that a largely white American medical world has often fallen short when treating black diabetics.
Passionately expressing her desire for a cure, McCauley concludes, “I ain’t died yet.”
McCauley is as vital as her theatrically alive “Sugar,” and Emerson and Boston theater are all the sweeter for it.