Emerson College performing arts professor Robbie McCauley has had a glittering performance career of her own. In 1976, she originated the role of Clara in Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,’’ which the experimental theater director Joseph Chaikin staged at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
She played the Lady in Red in the original 1976 Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.’’
At the conclusion of “Sally’s Rape,’’ McCauley’s drama about the victimization of her great-great-grandmother as a slave on a Georgia plantation, she stood naked on an auction block. That piece won a 1992 Obie Award for best new American play, in a three-way tie with Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz’’ and Donald Margulies’s “Sight Unseen.’’
Now, in her new one-woman show, premiering at ArtsEmerson Friday through Jan. 29, McCauley strikes a more autobiographical note. “Sugar’’ is about slavery and racism, but it’s also about growing up in Columbus, Ga., and then being diagnosed with type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.
When it comes to serious diseases, diabetes is the elephant in the room. It’s seldom cited as a primary cause of death. It does not get much attention even when it strikes a celebrity such as Mary Tyler Moore. Moore was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ was starting up more than 40 years ago; she’s taken insulin ever since, and now, at 75, she has lost much of her vision. Yet you are more likely to read about whether Moore is Botoxing than about how she is coping with her disease.
Diabetes is also, McCauley notes, “one of those diseases that has blame associated with it. If you took care of yourself . . . Blame and shame.’’
She articulates this while sitting with her director, Emerson performing arts professor Maureen Shea, on one of the comfortable sofas in the second-floor lobby of the Paramount Center. We can hear people working on the set in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater as we talk.
“My official diagnosis didn’t happen until I was in my early 20s,’’ McCauley says, “but I realized all my life that something was off in my body. And as I look back, there were small symptoms that might have been called pre-diabetes. I was very thin, which is a symptom of juvenile diabetes. So there were resonances of it in my body at a very early age, but it wasn’t diagnosed until much later.’’
“Some of ‘Sugar’ is about access’’ to health care, Shea points out. “About not getting diagnosed. At the beginning of the piece, the diabetes comes up from below, like an oil well, in spurts, with a symptom here and a symptom there, until she gets diagnosed.’’
“The main symptom I noticed was a kind of constant tiredness,’’ McCauley continues, “and once I started being treated, I had a little more energy. But the insulin regimen is tricky. And so I talk a lot about, and have experienced a lot of, insulin shocks.’’
That didn’t stop McCauley from pursuing a career in the theater. “I didn’t plan it,’’ she says. “I got pulled in, seduced by the theater in college, at Howard University, and I had wonderful people working with me and around me. I hadn’t yet been diagnosed. But I was always ready for the show.’’
From there she went on to the Big Apple. “I was in New York in the mid-’60s, which was a vital time for American theater. I taught at New York University for a long time, and the faculty there consisted of people who were in the profession as well as those who taught.’’
McCauley and Shea start to recall who was there back then: Olympia Dukakis, the actress; Lloyd Richards, the director; Kristin Linklater, the vocal coach - all at NYU at the same time, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “And that was what was so great about it,’’ McCauley remembers. “We could take time and go rehearse. And it took a lot of energy, but by that time I was managing pretty well.’’
As for her appearance in “For Colored Girls,’’ she says, “It felt like a larger audience for the work that we’d been doing out of the mainstream. The inner emotional life of African-Americans and others who are not necessarily in the mainstream of American society was given voice. Ntozake Shange was a black woman who was also a feminist. I felt at home doing that show. And proud.’’
Shea, it turns out, was instrumental in bringing McCauley to Emerson. They met in 1994, when Shea directed Company of Women’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V’’ and McCauley attended a performance at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. At that point, Shea says, she had just come to Emerson from Virginia Tech. Eventually, she recalls, a teaching position opened up at Emerson, and Shea - then the head of the college’s performing arts department - brought McCauley in.
Now they’re working together on “Sugar.’’ McCauley characterizes the piece as “part storytelling, part enactment, part narrative, part movement piece, part memory play. Very rhythmic.’’ And then there’s the contribution of pianist Chauncey Moore, from the experimental group Mission, who plays throughout “Sugar.’’ Does he improvise? No, but it started out that way, Shea and McCauley agree. Moore, they say, listened to what McCauley was saying and improvised from that.
Shea notes that “Sugar’’ is “as much about race as it is about diabetes. Because Robbie also explores the history of sugar cane, and the sugar plantations, and the idea of being slaves to sugar.’’ McCauley concurs: “For me it’s as much about the African-American experience as it is about the diabetic experience.’’
“Until the first insulin shock,’’ says McCauley, “it’s very narrative, with my life as a child in Georgia, and chronological, my life in D.C., my life in New York, my marriage, my degree, my acting career, ‘For Colored Girls.’ ’’
Shea describes this first half as “Chattin’ it up with Robbie.’’ “And then, in a hotel room in Ohio,’’ McCauley says, “wham! Insulin shock. The first half is much more storytelling, and the second half is much more performance art.’’