We’ve all heard the rumors about Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, but has homosexuality among slaves been het-washed from history?
In Donja R. Love’s off-Broadway play Sugar in Our Wounds, part of a trilogy exploring the queer black experience, Sheldon Best and Chinaza Uche star as James and Henry, Southern plantation slaves liberated by forbidden romance during the Civil War. The new drama earned Love the prestigious Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, the first major playwriting grant named in honor of a gay couple: Arthur Laurents and Tom Hatcher.
Co-founder of the Each-Other Project, an arts and advocacy organization for LGBTQ people of color, Love explains why it’s his deep-rooted responsibility to revive his forgotten queer ancestors.
What inspired you to explore a gay love story about two slaves?
About eight years ago I was reading Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, and there’s a passage where a character recalls hearing what slaveowners did to male slaves who had been intimate with each other. It blew my mind, because I never imagined anyone like me existing during that time—as if we just popped up during Stonewall. I used to tell myself I’d never write a play about slavery, because I was interested in current black American narratives, but that was before I could envision two men loving each other in the time of enslavement.
Is there historical evidence that there were same-sex relationships among slaves?
Yes, in my research I encountered various stories about men of enslavement having love for each other that was beyond friendship, father-son, brother-brother. It was a very liberating and affirming discovery. That’s why I wanted to tell this story, so people could see themselves reflected in a way they never imagined before. It’s important to know that we’ve always existed.
Without words like “gay” or “homosexual,” how were these relationships described in writings from the period?
There was so much coded language. One word I realized was an indicator for a relationship between men was “loathsome,” similar to how “abomination” would be used today in a religious context. My director, Saheem Ali, kept coming across the word “buggery.”
There were hundreds of years of American slavery. Why did you set the play in 1862?
Setting it in 1862, right before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, was about hope. I thought about these two men waking up every day, knowing the end of the day is not promised, and I knew they needed some hope to make it through. The hope of freedom helped activate me as a writer and move the plot forward.
Suffice it to say the romance is ill-fated. Was there ever a version of the play in which these men lived happily ever after?
After I got the first draft out, I wondered if they could run off together into the sunset. But I felt like I’d be doing the story and our ancestors a disservice by not leaning into the truth of the time period. Yes, these two men love each other, but we can’t forget what was at stake.
How did homophobia within today’s black community inform the play?
I tried not to think about that too much, but naturally, just by me existing in the world, it was going to seep in. I thought about how arduous being black and gay can be in 2018, and how there are still people who think homosexuality is some new thing. So I saw this play as a chance to challenge peoples’ preconceived notions using some language that may feel a bit contemporary.
Although the slaves in the play aren’t related, they’ve created a makeshift family that ultimately supports the same-sex relationship. Why did you choose to show that acceptance instead of disapproval?
Even now, we must sometimes create our own families to find that support. There’s a scene where Aunt Mama shows encouragement when James finally shares his truth, and I was told it felt too contemporary to have her welcome him with open arms. But I found in my research that there were tribes in Africa, prior to being enslaved, where men married men, women married women. Aunt Mama has a deep connection to the ancestors and the past, so it felt right for her to offer that love.
Sugar in Our Wounds is part of a trilogy called The Love* Plays, which also includes Fireflies and In the Middle. What does the asterisk mean?
The asterisk indicates a focus specifically on queer love during pivotal moments in black history. Because my last name happens to be Love, some people think it’s an ego thing.
You identify as an “Afro-queer” playwright. Do you feel a responsibility to write about the black queer experience?
Yes, 100%. James Baldwin once did an interview where he was asked if being poor, black, and gay had made him feel disadvantaged as a young writer, but he said he felt he had “hit the jackpot.” I feel like I was given these identities for a specific reason, so I’m proud to tell stories from an unapologetically black and queer space.
What were your thoughts on Kanye West’s recent comments that slavery was a choice?
Lord have mercy. I was extremely disheartened, because it seems like he’s navigating some sort of mental illness. As much as I love Kanye, and as much as his music still inspires me, I also think he has a lot of learning and relearning to do. We know enslavement was not a choice—it just took us a while to get out of it. We’re still getting out of it.
Sugar in Our Wounds runs through July 15 at MTC’s Studio at Stage II in New York.