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A Conversation on Robbie McCauley, Part Two: SUGAR

The conversation continues between Emerson College Professor and Dramaturg Magda Romanska and Harvey Young, award-winning author, theatre scholar and internationally recognized authority on African American theatre, about Robbie McCauley, the African American experience and the importance of the body, memory and confession.

MR: Robbie once said that “Confessions are good information.”  The act of confession, bearing witness, it is an important part of post-traumatic healing.  Sugar is Robbie’s story. In all of her previous works, she focused her artistic lens on different family members drawing the landscape of African American experience.  Sugar is different.  It is a story of Robbie as an artist, an actress, an African American woman, struggling to live with diabetes in a complex, racially divided world, while trying to lead a full, active and creative life.  The piece grew out of the process of story circles, an artistic and community building technique based on the premise that everyone has a story to tell.  The technique was developed by John O’Neal as a way to create oral history of African American experience. The process of storytelling is therapeutic in itself because it is a process of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and fundamentally, of re-externalizating one’s story. 

HY: Sugar might best be described as a theatrical memoir filled with confessions. It remembers moments in McCauley’s life with a particular emphasis on her health struggles. If there is a therapeutic component related to these revelations of her medical history, I suspect that the primary beneficiary is McCauley’s audience. Sugar brings attention to Black health issues that rarely are openly discussed in public. This gift of visibility is crucial because the health concerns that McCauley has are shared with a significant percentage of the African American population. Indeed, the numbers of diabetics within the black community have been on the rise for the past few decades. Through the play, she lets people dealing with such health issues know that they are not alone.

MR:  In Sugar, the act of personal confession – the story of how one deals with this devastating illness – diabetes – becomes a source of much bigger narrative about the history of healthcare in America.  Historically, African Americans have been mistrustful of the official healthcare system, particularly the one offered by the government – with good reason.  Many African Americans have also viewed receiving health care as a degrading, demeaning or humiliating experience.  Sugar is trying to deal head-on with the consequences of that history. In Sugar, the father is in denial, never really accepting and acknowledging Robbie’s illness. As Robbie said, “the one thing I was not going to acknowledge was my own silence about [my] diabetes. And of course we’re silent about it. No one ever asks, and we all know the shame and blame that can come with it.”

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