Emerson College Professor and Dramaturg Magda Romanska talks to 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.

Magda Romanska: In your book, Embodying Black Experience, you talk about the importance of the black body in African American performance art as a site of trauma, history and memory. In Robbie McCauley’s art, in particular, the body is a palimpsest, a conduit of historical and personal narrative that weaves into the larger context of national identity and global African American Diaspora. In her Obie Award-winning performance, Sally’s Rape (1991), the objectified, commodified body of a black female becomes a site of meta-narrative about money, sex and labor – the entire complex nexus of political, economic and sexual interconnections that construe the American legacy of the slave trade.

Harvey Young: In my book I tell the stories of artists, athletes and every day Black folk who use performance to interrogate the history, experience, and legacy of racial violence. I center on Robbie McCauley’s Sally’s Rape as a powerful and exemplary theatrical model that demonstrates how past abuses echo into the future. The play, which draws its title from the name (and suffering) of McCauley’s great-great-grandmother remembers and reimagines the experiences of Sally, who was a captive on a southern plantation, bore the child of her “master,” and likely was a survivor of sexual assault. A passing reference to this Sally is made in Sugar.

MR: Sally’s Rape won a number of awards, but besides the awards, it was unquestionably the gutsiest performance piece of the 1990s. Putting herself on the auction block, Robbie, as she said, tried to exercise that demon. She said, “I wanted to do this to free us.” Margot Weiss, Duke University scholar, writes that re-enactment of slave auctions in a S&M context is not a “safe space” removed from its historical context, but that it depends on current social hierarchies, from which it attempts to escape. The reenactment puts the actors in charge of the narrative which this time around can have a different, cathartic ending.

HY: At one moment in the play, McCauley stood atop a block, which became an “auction block” through her stand, and dropped the sack dress that she wore. Naked and (briefly) silent in this moment, she stands as audience members, goaded by her performance partner Jennie Hutchins, chant “Bid ‘em in.” In this way, the scene of the auction block gets recreated. Although I never saw a live production of Sally’s Rape, I have spoken to a number of audience members about the experience of sitting there as McCauley stood naked atop the block. One recollection that stands out to me was a spectator’s feeling of intense discomfort at being cast as a person who would or could buy a Black person and a desire for the scene to end as quickly as possible. This particular audience member had the distinct feeling that if she didn’t chant “Bid ‘em in” – which she didn’t want to do – then the scene would continue and McCauley would remain standing naked atop the block. In the end, she chanted alongside the audience. This moment – and, indeed, the entire play – is gutsy not only for McCauley’s fearlessness on stage but also for her insistence that her audience engage with the history, the objectification and the exploitation of African Americans.

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. Sugarbrings 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.”

HY: The sad reality is that African Americans have more significant health issues than other populations within the United States. According to recent studies by the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health, 51% of Black women over the age of 20 are clinically obese (and 37% of Black men); 14% of all African Americans are in fair or poor health; 21% of African Americans under 65 lack health insurance. The life expectancy of white males is six years longer than Black males; the life expectancy for white females is four years longer than Black females. It’s difficult to identify the main causes. Certainly, traditionally Black foods, which became traditions because they frequently were the unhealthful discards of white slave-owners over centuries of African captivity, can be blamed. Part of the cause may be the limited fresh and organic food options in Black communities. Some part of it could be a distrust of the healthcare industry. There are plenty of historical examples that suggest that African Americans should be skeptical about the care that they receive from their doctors: from the experiments on slaves by Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” to the U.S. Public Health Service’s Tuskegee study involving black sharecroppers. In addition, there are the increasing costs of healthcare in this country coupled with the high unemployment rate (17%) that serve as discentives to receiving medical care.

MR: Sugar is also a story of the body – of the way that soul is trying to deal with the sick body that refuses to be tamed, that needs to be listened to. When you have a chronic illness, your body becomes your captain. Your life becomes a constant bargaining between what your soul needs and what your body needs. We rarely become aware of the materiality of our body, its physical characteristics, its limits, its socio-cultural marks, until we are forced to face it…

HY: I agree. The body is such a familiar part of ourselves that we often fail to think critically about how it operates – until illness or injury happens. In my book, I write about the effect of skin complexion and how that feature can increase a person’s chances of becoming a victim of racial violence – from racial profiling to physical assault. I would argue that most recognizable African Americans are aware of the materiality of their bodies along these lines – the power of complexion and racial recognizability. The gift that is Sugar is that it draws attention and awareness to how the body speaks from beneath the skin. Furthermore, these health concerns rarely are isolated and experienced only by a single person. They are shared by members of the same community. They pass from generation to generation.

HARVEY YOUNG is Associate Professor of Theatre at Northwestern University. His books include Embodying Black Experience (2010), Performance in the Borderlands (2011) and Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun (2012).