Review: SWEETER

by Lynn on December 4, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Aki Studio, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ont. A Cahoots Theatre Production in association with Roseneath Theatre. Plays until Dec. 17.

Photo: l-R: Daren Herbert, Alicia Plummer

https://www.cahoots.ca/programming/tickets

Written by Alicia Richardson

Directed by Tanisha Taitt

Set by Sim Suzer

Costumes by A.W. Nadine Grant

Lighting by Shawn Henry

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Cast: Uche Ama

Daren Herbert

Sébastien Heins

Alicia Plummer

Emerjade Simms

Amaka Umeh

A beautifully created story and production for both children and adults. It’s heartfelt, perceptive and wise.  

The Story. We are in Eatonville, Florida after emancipation. (Note: Eatonville was founded in 1887 by a group of newly freed Black men—the first in US history, according to the research of playwright Alicia Richardson.)

Ralph, a freed Black man and his young daughter, Sweet Pea, have arrived at the Zucker Farm looking for work. Ralph has dreams of owning a plot of land and growing his own crops. Zucker, who owns the farm—he inherited it from his father—will sell Ralph a small plot of land for $5. Ralph doesn’t have the money. Zucker suggests Ralph work for the money. They shake on the deal.

Sweet Pea notices a plant, languishing. It’s a Mango Tree. Sweet Pea tends the plant with care and love. Ralph says the secret to nurturing plants is to listen to them as well as care for them and Sweet Pea does. The result is that The Mango Tree flourishes, bears fruit and talks to Sweet Pea. The Sun (named Dee) shines light and warmth on the plants and the earth. Dee, The Sun also talks to Sweet Pea. She is a magical child, loving, caring, smart and resourceful.

Ralph works hard on the crops and sells some produce at the market to make some money. But Zucker keeps the money it as his right as the owner of the farm. His word and handshake meant nothing. Ralph and Sweet Pea have to be clever in solving the dilemma of how to make money in order to deal with the unscrupulous Zucker.

The Production. Set designer Sim Suzer has designed a set that is enchanting. There is a structure stage right that seems to be the Zucker house. A sign says: “Zucker Farms.” Above that is a panel on which captions of what is being said are projected. A short picket fence is festooned with flowers. There is a ladder structure up stage with The Mango Tree (Emerjade Simms in a leotard) bent over part of the ladder. When The Mango Tree flowers and bears fruit more ladders are arranged around the initial one with fruit vines floating down. Off to the left is a fenced in parcel of land that Ralph (Daren Herbert) would love to buy.

A.W. Nadine Grant’s costumes are also enchanting and whimsical. Ralph and Sweet Pea (Alicia Plummer) wear colourful work clothes. Dee, The Sun (Uche Ama) wears a beautiful full yellow gown with sun ‘bursts’ in their hair, and carries a yellow parasol. Zucker (Sébastien Heins) wears a form-fitting maroon vest and fitted rust pants. The ‘look’ says ‘success’. Miquelon Rodriguez has created a wonderful soundscape of guitar music and other sound that gives a light, ethereal feel to the work. Shawn Henry’s lighting creates the warmth of Dee, The Sun and the sense of cold and foreboding when The Sun is down. The technical aspects of this production work as a cohesive whole to create a wonderful, thoughtful production.

The relationship of Ralph and Sweet Pea is at the center of Sweeter. As Ralph, Daren Herbert brings out all the love and care of this father for his young daughter. He is playful but firm when he has to be. Sweet Pea learns from him as a matter of course. But Sweet Pea as played by Alicia Plummer, is also a good teacher. When money to buy supplies is scarce, Sweet Pea finds a solution that is thoughtful and smart. Ralph sees it too.

As Sweet Pea, Alicia Plummer is pure sunlight, buoyant, always cheerful and optimistic. She can read a situation and react accordingly. And she spreads her love around, especially to The Mango Tree.

Daren Herbert as Ralph adds so many layers to his performance. When Ralph is given the chance to buy the parcel of land, Daren Herbert as Ralph is terribly moving when he says with a quivery voice, “It’s the first time I had options—work or buy.” There is a piece of business in director Tanisha Taitt’s production that takes the breath away. When Ralph is negotiating with Zucker, played smoothly but with a shiftiness by Sébastien Heins, Zucker wants to shake on it. Ralph hesitates, confused. One sucks air. He’s never been in this position before, that someone would consider him an equal to shake hands with him. Ralph has always been treated as lesser because he was a slave. Now he is a free man. Shaking hands on a business deal is his right. It’s a moving moment right down to the ground.

At one point Ralph looks at Zucker and says something like “we coloured men” including Zucker in the conversation. Zucker seems confused by that, as if he doesn’t consider himself a man of colour, or he wants to ignore it. Alicia Richardson has written a feather of a line that just floats in the air establishing all sorts of possibilities. The matter is not addressed until later in the play and it’s addressed beautifully.

The Mango Tree is played with a winking humour by Emerjade Simms. She is as fragile as a plant that needs water and as fearless as a plant that is loved and watered and listened to by the child who loves her. As Dee, The Sun, Uche Ama crosses the stage, languidly, as The Sun makes the passage from sunrise to sunset; spreading light, warmth and good humour in their own way.  Amaka Umeh plays Jedadiah, a kindly merchant, in an uncredited part. Umeh is pure grace in the part.

Every relationship, both loving and not, between a person, a plant, the sun or the dark is directed with care, sensitivity and compassion by Tanisha Taitt. The production is a gift.  

Comment. Alicia Richardson is a gifted writer. She says in her programme note that “I made this play to give my whimsical, big-hearted 10-year-old self the story she has always deserved.” Alicia Richardson has created a bracing, moving love letter to her 10-year-old self and to all of the rest of the people fortunate enough to experience it, no matter how old they are or where they come from, as long as they listen hard and love what they hear. More please, soon.

A Cahoots Theatre Production in association with Roseneath Theatre

Plays until Dec. 17, 2023.

Running time: 2 hour, 15 minutes (1 intermission)

https://www.cahoots.ca/programming/tickets

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