'Sweeter' by Alicia Richardson
Now onstage to December 17 at the Aki Studio, 585 Dundas Street East
Credit: Foreshots Photography. Pictured: Daren Herbert as Ralph and Alicia Plummer as Sweet Pea
Zoe Marin, Contributor
“With the ongoing discourse about whether or not kids should learn about race in schools, ‘Sweeter’ proves that it’s not only necessary, but also doesn’t have to be difficult.”
‘Sweeter’ takes place in American South in 1887, only two decades after the abolition of slavery. Ralph (Daren Herbert) widowed and newly emancipated, seeks a better life for him and his daughter, Sweet Pea (Alicia Plummer). This brings him to Mr. Zucker’s (Sébastien Heins) small farm in Eatonville, Florida, where he is currently unable to afford the small patch of land Zucker offers him. Eager to have something of his own, Ralph agrees to “lease” the land and work for Zucker until he’s able to buy it. Here. Ralph begins to tend to a withered mango tree that he promises will prosper with the right care. As it turns out, “Mango Tree” (Emerjade Simms) can talk, leading to a close bond with Sweet Pea and making an enemy out of Zucker.
‘Sweeter’ approaches the topics of slavery and anti-black racism with a directness that makes it easy for children to understand, as well as a humour that eases them into the more intense discussions of these issues later in the play. Director Tanisha Taitt further elevates that joy through her usage of music and dance that is sure to keep children and adult audiences equally engaged. I also thoroughly enjoyed how she kept the energy going through her transitions that often involved unique portrayals of the tree growing (through ladders with leaves attached), or flipping the flowers “planted” on the set (designed by Sim Suzer) to show a change in season.
With the mix of human characters, along with with a talking sun Dee (Uche Ama) Mango Tree, the show never loses its playfulness, even as it delves into serious issues The Mango Tree metaphor works incredibly well as a clear way to portray the anti-black rhetoric of the time, while also not suscepting the audience into two hours of ‘trauma porn’.
When Zucker, a light-skinned black man, first sees the Mango Tree, he calls her ‘ashy’, ‘dark’ and ‘scary’. When he first hears her talk, he says she’s demonic and spews Bible quotes at her. Then when he finds out how much money he can make off her fruti, he starts exploiting her.
The metaphor is clear. The treatment is still vile, but the mango tree allegory cushions the hateful rhetoric without ever censoring it.
Although ‘Sweeter’ is intended for young audiences, there are many nuanced layers to Richardson’s script that invite different audience interpretations. In addition to portraying anti-black racism, ‘Sweeter’ also touches on how class, proximity to whiteness, and gender can lead to certain privileges or further subjugations within the black community. I don’t think a small child would explain it like that necessarily, but the play definitely opens up the floor to those discussions.
In the programme’s Playwright’s Note, Alicia Richardson says her purpose for writing ‘Sweeter’ was: “to explain the adult Black experience to a Black child.” As someone who is neither black, nor a child, I can’t speak to whether that specific mission was fulfilled. However, at ‘Sweeter’’s opening performance, there were so many moments where I heard the audience become disgusted by something Zucker said, or gasp, give a big “Aww” at a moment between Sweet Pea and Ralph, or even just laugh at a joke about Florida. Sometimes it was many people, other times it was just a few. Either way, it’s clear that Richardson’s very speific writing for her target audience led to a deeply personal and nuanced story that engulf’s the entire audience for each of their own reasons.
A really memorable moment for me happened when Mango Tree talks about previously not benign able to grow fruit, and she says: “Can’t nobody expect you to grow if you’re too busy surviving.” Although the use of the mango tree metaphor could have risked deluding the show’s message, witnessing the collective ‘Mmh” and nodding of heads after this moment realy solidifed the importance of this story right now.
Slavery may have already ended by the time ‘Sweeter’ begins, but its lasting effects continue to prevent Sweet Pea, Ralph, and even the antagonistic Zucker from ‘growing’. By focusing on the years after the abolition of slavery, ‘Sweeter’ fights against the anti-reparations/anti-affirmative action/anti-CRT/ pro-bootstrap myth crowds of today who believe that society is far removed from slavery, or the Jim Crow era, or police brutality incidents from a coupl of years ago. The same crowd who believes that people need to just ‘move on’, and that there’s no need to teach kids about it. By showing how bad society still was decades after abolition. ‘Sweeter’ puts a magnifying glass up to how society is still not removed from this dark history, and how it needs to be educated.
On the note of education, I would also like to appreciate the ‘Study Guide’ provided by Cahoots, written by director Tanisha Taitt with contributions from playwright Alicia Richardson. The Guide includes further context about the characters and setting, discussion questions, curriculum connections, and additional themes for students in Grade 3-6 and 7-12. The Guide isn’t necessary for appreciating the play, but I would encourage teachers, parents, or even less-educated adults to read it over to have a more profound understanding.
Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.
‘Sweeter’ runs to December 17 at the Aki Studio, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto. For tickets, https://www.cahoots.ca/production/sweeter
SWEETER by Alicia Richardson
A Cahoots Theatre Production in association with Roseneath Theatre.
Directed by Tanisha Taitt
Set by Sim Suzer
Costumes by A.W. Nadine Grant
Lighting by Shawn Henry
Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez
Featuring: Daren Herbert, Alicia Plummer, Uche Ama, Sébastien Heins, Emerjade Simms.