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A Life at War with Sugar

Published: 1/31/12
9 readers recommend
By James Hirsch

by james s. hirsch

“Sugar’s complicated,” says the performer Robbie McCauley. “It gives you energy and can eat you up from the inside out.”

And it’s a lot more than that. In McCauley’s view, sugar lies at the tragic intersection of race, sex, and health in America. It’s also the focus of her one-woman stage production called, simply, “Sugar,” that she just performed in Boston in late January (Editor's Note – and that we hope to see performed elsewhere in the US this year).

Diabetes is no stranger to the theater, though it’s often used as a subplot – most famously, perhaps, in “Steel Magnolias,” in which a young diabetic woman dies after she becomes a mother. Diabetic characters are increasingly popping up on television sit-coms, but this is hardly new. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the second-to-last episode of “Happy Days,” in 1984, featured Chachi getting diagnosed with diabetes.

But my own sense is that diabetes rarely translates well to stage or film and rarely stimulates a broader discussion about the epidemic. The characters may get the accouterments right – the glucose meters, the insulin vials, the diet restrictions. And they can read the scripted words about their frustrations, disillusionment, or dreams. But what always seems missing is a deeper emotional connection, a sense of the internal drama of this disease.

That’s the great strength of McCauley’s performance, which runs from January 20 to January 29 at the Paramount Theater in Boston. Introspective, poignant, and enlightening, the 75-minute show might be the first mainstream theatrical production devoted entirely to diabetes.

An accomplished African American performer, McCauley is known for her raw and daring works. In her award-winning 1992 play “Sally’s Rape,” she stood naked on an auction block, encouraging spectators to bid on her body, while she recounted the sale and rape of her great-great grandmother, a slave.

Nothing quite that dramatic happens in “Sugar,” but McCauley does bare her diabetic soul. Toward the end, she tests her blood sugar on stage (without disclosing the number) and injects some insulin into her stomach. More broadly, she tries to shock audiences into understanding the harsh realities of the diabetic life. “Nobody talks about how much it hurts,” she says.

The genesis of the show was an article she read in 2005 that described the health disparities affecting African American women, particularly those with diabetes. A professor at Emerson College, McCauley had also been running “story circles” with people affected by diabetes, so drawing from her own experiences and informed by these other conversations, she wrote “Sugar.”

Her biggest hurdle was overcoming a lifetime of silence, and shame. Like many people with type 1 or type 2, she was an expert in concealing her condition, but those days are now over. The performance had a cathartic feel – McCauley was not only venting her own struggles but signaling to her audience that these topics could indeed be discussed in public.

Raised in Virginia and Georgia, McCauley was living Washington D.C. when at age 20 she was diagnosed with type 1. Initially, she tells her audience, she was not given insulin by the hospital, because in the early 1960s, the hospital “didn’t give hypodermic needles to Negroes.” Her medical condition constantly compromised her career in New York as well as her personal life. She once passed out from hypoglycemia, causing her to miss a performance in which the director Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show”) was to be in the audience. Hospital visits were frequent. In the 1970s, she says, she was “wild with sex,” but glycemic gyrations would cause love making to be painful. She tried discussing the matter with her doctors but found little help – one doctor, she says, whispered in her ear that she should try a female partner. “I wasn’t going to jump the river,” she tells the audience.

McCauley explains “the three D’s of diabetes: Depression. Denial. And drink.” She went to AA but couldn’t stand it. “I finally quit drinking, because I couldn’t stand the meetings.”

For someone who’s been through so much, McCauley looks quite good. A touch of gray in her close-cropped hair, she’s fit and moves around the stage easily. But appearances can be deceptive. She described her heart attack in 2003, which required a stent placed in her heart. (Any other diabetic complications were not visible to the audience.) At one point, the lights came up, and McCauley asked four audience members to use one word to describe the war in Afghanistan.

“Difficult.”

“Treacherous.”

“Violent.”

“Overwhelming.”

“Well,” McCauley said, “all my life has been a war with sugar.”

Sugar is the harrowing narrative thread through this play and through black history. As McCauley explains, cotton wasn’t the only crop on slave plantations. Blacks were also enslaved to cut sugar cane. Sugar has long been a staple of black Southern diets – McCauley, in a rhapsody to such foods, says, “The pound cake was so good you wanna slap somebody!” Sugar was something to be grown, cut, and processed; desired after and lusted for; even sprinkled on babies’ foreheads to make them sweeter to kiss. But sugar has also been used to corrupt the diets of all Americans, particularly those in the black community, and the consequences are now in their full tragic bloom: the sugar has traveled from the ground to the processing plants to our foods and finally into our blood stream.

“Sex is gentler than love,” McCauley tells her audience. “I always knew. And shame is more difficult than guilt. Sugar carries shame.”

I hope McCauley’s show finds a larger audience – perhaps in play houses in other cities, or on a cable network. Others would appreciate her view of a product that brings both joy and heartbreak.

“The Negro people who raised me,” she says, “much as I was cared for and as much as I was loved, the ignorance [about sugar] cut me up. But not love or diabetes has killed me yet.”

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