Donja R. Love Pulls At Love Across Time, Space and Identity
By George Kevin Jordan
Donja R. Love wrote us a letter. By “us” I mean his audience. The single sheet of paper was tucked in between the playbill; a parting gift to ruminate over on the train or bus. The entire letter is attached below**. But I want to start with the most startling words from Love’s mother.
“As a playwright, the core of my work manifests from something my mother told me when I shared I was gay: As a parent, all you want is for your child to have an easy life, but you won’t. Your life will be hard, because there are millions of people in this world who don’t even know you and want you dead.”
Those words guided Mr. Love, and they guide the audience through his latest work Sugar In Our Wounds, the Off-Broadway show playing through July 15th at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Experience Sugar, is like attending church with a good choir and a great pastor. By the time you get to the benediction you are emotionally and spiritually wiped out. But not drained. You have released the pain, the hurt, and there is nothing left to do but sit in a heap. This experience is not painful, it is cathartic. It is healing. And it should be, because for the 32-year-old graduate from Temple University, healing is the purpose.
“Honestly I don’t go into it (his plays) with expectations,” Love said in a phone interview. “Writing was the thing that healed me. That is what I go into each play feeling and thinking about. I only write a play when I feel it deep down inside. When i am navigating through different traumas.”
Thank God Mr. Love digs deep for us. Sugar, hits at the core of love, how expansive it can be for some. The show unpacks the story of three slaves who are barely surviving, when a handsome stranger enters their lives. Love is tested and pushed, molded, broken, birthed and destroyed. Sugar is a testament to how beautiful love can be for some, and how limited and unforgiving and controlling it can be for others. The show has been so well received it has been the limited run had to be extended.
Mr. Love’s journey to this moment was a testament to tackling the greatest love project anyone can ever take on – loving themselves. In the beginning, however his love of theater began while watching someone else master their craft.
“My first introduction into theater and the arts would probably had been elementary school,” Love said. “I am originally from Philly. There was this community theater, the Bushfire Theater which was on 52nd street. There was a one man show with John Amos from Good Times. I went to show and I didn’t understand what he was talking about but what hit me the most was the talk back. When he came back he wasn’t like the person on stage before. I was like ‘is this the same person?’ And my mom was like ‘no this was an actor. He was playing a character.’ The idea that someone can actually get really deep down and become this other person. I thought I was going to be someone’s actor.”
The acting bug took him all the way to Temple in Philadelphia. But soon life and time would shift his mission.
“I majored in the theater concentration,” Love said. “Whenever I was cast in plays I found myself always looking at all the characters. I was curious why a writer would “this” word for “this” moment. Why is an exclamation point here? I thought ‘you need to investigate what this is about.’”
Writing had always been a part of his life. Love said he wrote when he was a child because he had a stuttering problem. Words were his voice. It was a shield, a refuge for him. But in 2008 when he was diagnosed with HIV, writing became a healing salve. He used writing to get through the trauma of his diagnosis.
“I wrote my first play,” Love said, admitting, “It was a mess of a play that I wouldn’t show anyone today.” The play was about a young man who found out he was HIV positive. But it wasn’t necessarily the play that moved him. It was the experience of writing.
“When I wrote it – it took me all night I finished at 6 a.m.,” Love said. “I remember how i felt. I felt accomplished and fulfilled and healed in that process.”
As he moved through his journey he was encouraged by the words and work of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin . He recalled an old interview when an interviewer asked Mr. Baldwin:
“Now when you were starting out as a writer you were black impoverished homoexual. You must have said to yourself “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”
To Which James replied, “No I thought I hit the jackpot.”
Seeing Mr. Baldwin acknowledge his past as gift not a curse was an empowering moment for Love. Since then he tried to make sure the nuances of his life were used to write authentic pieces. His trilogy of Love* plays, which include Sugar, is apart of this transformation.
“My love plays are about queer love throughout black history,” Love said. ”Fireflies is about love during the civil rights movement. In The Middle is about love during the Black Lives Matter Movement, and being able to see a group of people and imagine them in way you may not have necessarily thought about. I would hope that people on a large spectrum would see the love, the power in it and how we need to hold onto it fiercely. Sometimes it may slip through our fingers but it is always there.”
Love’s second play Fireflies will be showing at the Atlantic Theater Company. Previews will be at the end of September to middle of November. He is finishing his final year of the Juilliard Playwriting Program.