Professor tackles personal and racial struggles in Sugar

by Sofya Levina / Beacon Staff • January 26, 2012

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McCauley carries a bundle of sugar cane on her back, symbolizing her struggles with diabetes and segregation.
Courtesy of Paul Marotta via Ashmont Media
McCauley carries a bundle of sugar cane on her back, symbolizing her struggles with diabetes and segregation.
Courtesy of Paul Marotta via Ashmont Media

Robbie McCauley has staged a war against an invisible enemy. It lurks in conversations between old friends, at evening galas, and in dining halls. It’s the unspoken misunderstanding, politically incorrect and impolite.  With Sugar, her new one-woman show, McCauley has staged a war on silence.  

McCauley, a performing arts professor at Emerson and Obie Award-winning playwright, has lived her life as if on a battle ground. From the segregation she faced as a young African-American girl growing up in Georgia, to her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, she has fought to spread awareness and give these issues a voice. Sugar, which continues its run in The Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater this weekend, links slavery and McCauley’s battle with diabetes with a single thread: the titular sweet stuff.

In this solo performance, McCauley, with the accompaniment of pianist Chauncey Moore, talks about black history, personal experience, insulin, and sex. Throughout the show, she incorporates everyday tasks like eating a candy bar and giving herself an insulin shot on stage. Each subject interwoven with the others, McCauley paints a tableau  of experience to share with her audience. 

McCauley encourages people to acknowledge the difficulty of communication. With her stories, she wants to show how to tackle tough subject matter, which for her includes race and diabetes.

“I express myself by simply telling the story,” she said. “Stories are repeatable, and even though you might not say exactly the same thing, at least you will have language to help you express those things that most people refuse to talk about.”

While her childhood is filled with joyful memories McCauley said she always felt social tensions. When looking at the world around her, she found it difficult to understand why people avoided certain subject matter. Even in her own family, topics like race were rarely mentioned.

“My family participated in American life. It started with looking at my grandfather, who was a Buffalo Soldier, and my father, who was a soldier in World War II,” said McCauley. “However, we were still looked down upon ... People made do as best they could but hardly talked about it. You just functioned.”

McCauley has a fascination with language. From her time as a student at Howard University, she learned to present her voice through theater and text. Although she has never formally studied writing, McCauley said that she has to refer to the essential traditional forms of writing and performing in order to organize her thoughts. 

She looks for inspiration in her own life experience, in the people she has worked with, and in key contemporary playwrights like Erik Ehn, Adrienne Kennedy, and Jessica Hagedorn.   

“I journal a lot,” said McCauley. “I listen to people. It’s very difficult to pinpoint how writing comes together. I think more in terms of fragments and then somewhere the fragments begin to come together, and I make the transitions between fragment and complete work.”

For McCauley, Sugar is complicated. It’s sweet, but deadly. By carrying a bundle of sugar cane on her back during the show, she expresses her life’s burdens. Both diabetes and the fight for racial equality have been life-long struggles that will follow her to the end.

“I just felt inspired to find some language,” said McCauley. “I just realized it was a dramatic possibility.”

Sugar will be performed in the The Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for students; student rush tickets can be purchased for $10 the day of the show.