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When word came that freedom was near, a group of enslaved people on a Southern plantation threw off their fear and danced. They clapped and stomped, using their bodies as instruments of exultation, their voices as bells of praise.

But their celebration was short-lived. For that freedom was not immediate and when it would come, there would be strings stretching back to the harsh past and dangling into the shaky future.

The brief, almost biblical scene offers a moment of pure, unfettered joy in "Sugar in Our Wounds," Donja R. Love's wry play now up in a regional premiere at Penumbra Theatre.

The marketing of "Sugar" focuses on the fact that it is a work of queer love in the antebellum South. And that's true as it shows the growing affection between captive men James (Nathan Barlow) and Henry (Antonio Duke). Their discovery of a deep connection marked by stolen kisses and holding each other with long looks draws us supportively in.

But "Sugar" also is a story of hunger for wholeness. All these characters are looking for some sort of family in a system that inhumanely breaks people and breaks up their families while leaving the brutalizers also scarred.

In addition to James, whose male forebears were all lynched on a tree that dominates Mina Kinukawa's rustic set, and Henry, who is searching for relations scattered by slavery, the cast includes the wise, aged survivor Aunt Mama (Erika LaVonn); Mattie (Alexis Sims), the daughter of an enslaved Black woman and the plantation's massa; and Isabel (Briana Patnode), the white missus who teaches James to read and who has longings of her own.

Director Sarah Bellamy stages the show as a painfully exquisite conjuring with able assists from her designers. Scott Edwards' soundscape, which includes haunting bird calls, complements Marcus Dilliard's chiaroscuro lighting which, in turn, works subtly with Miko Simmons' projections to help transport us into the riverbed on the plantation and give us the feel of that benighted milieu.

Bellamy employs tableaus and silhouettes, the kind that artist Kara Walker uses with such precision, to evoke the misty past. Bellamy's scenes are distinct and clearly articulated yet she uses soft transitions and silences to induce us into something almost resembling hypnosis. For "Sugar" lives in a liminal space between sleep and waking, with neither the characters, nor us, sure of the beginning and ending of what we see and feel.

The actors deliver terrific performances in "Sugar," whose male characters feel contemporary while the female characters are more of the past. Duke gives Henry a gruff, purposeful muscularity. He moves with steely determination and life-and-death seriousness. He also has a dread stare — a calm, unblinking eye from which one cannot retreat.

Duke has strong chemistry with Barlow, whose James has a would-be scholar's mien. Barlow invests James, a character whose world is expanding with reading, with a kind of inner vision. While the actor stays in the moment at all times — James' family history may foretell his future — we do get a sense of foreboding from Barlow's aching turn.

Aunt Mama is a cross between August Wilson's Aunt Ester and Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. She has the wisdom and the care to help the enslaved navigate their captivity. And Aunt Mama has the show's best lines. LaVonn, who Twin Cities audiences may remember from "The Mountaintop" and "Pipeline," delivers them with a thick drawl that sounds almost like lip-smacking relish. Her beautiful performance anchors the show.

In the two smallest roles, Sims and Patnode deliver potently — Sims as the sympathetic Mattie desperate for love and Patnode as a repulsive Isabel also hungry for companionship.

"Sugar" may be set in harsh history but the production shows how that dark past resonates bittersweetly.

'Sugar in Our Wounds'
Who: By Donja R. Love. Directed by Sarah Bellamy.
Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends March 19.
Tickets: $20-$45. 651-224-3180 or
Protocol: Masks required.