At the beginning of “Sugar,’’ her lyrical and stirring solo show about diabetes and race, Robbie McCauley spends a few laborious minutes trying to unwrap a candy bar. When she finally liberates the sweet from its package, McCauley takes a generous bite.
“Sugar is complicated, like love, full of pleasure and pain,’’ she says. “It’s complicated, gives you energy, and can eat you up from the inside out.’’
The autobiographical tale McCauley goes on to tell is also bursting with complications and vivid details about how this distinctive personality has grappled with the world she found and the world she made, in the theater and elsewhere, while coping with a condition that often sapped her energy. (“So tired a lot,’’ she says of the period of her life when she was forging a career as an actor. “Trying to do and finish everything.’’)
Story by story, observation by observation, McCauley builds a striking rapport with the audience inside the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box, where “Sugar’’ is receiving its world premiere in a production directed by Maureen Shea. Heads nodding, they hang on her words, as if they had come to hear McCauley talk about their lives as well as hers.
Even granting that any actor is likely to have supportive friends on hand at an opening performance, there was a palpable warmth to the atmosphere at “Sugar,’’ which is being presented by ArtsEmerson in collaboration with the performing arts department at Emerson College. (McCauley is a professor at Emerson.)
Partly, it had to do with the alchemy of a skilled performer and raconteur who knows the subtle difference between speaking with - rather than to or at - her audience. “Sugar’’ has the flavor of free association, but its narrative structure is expertly assembled, with significant contributions from pianist and composer Chauncey Moore, whose music underscores shifts in mood, time, and place.
McCauley has a relaxed stage presence, with a matter-of-fact honesty, whether she is discussing our love-hate relationship with food or our relationships with the families we build (she got pregnant when she was nearly 40) as well as the ones we are born into. She brings up what she says is a seldom-discussed topic - the impact of diabetes on sex - and the reticence of older women to talk about the general subject. “How silent are we women about sex after a certain age?’’ she asks.
As that line suggests, while McCauley connects with her audience, she doesn’t coddle them. She doesn’t stint on descriptions of the segregated South she grew up in, and she directly addresses the disparities in health care between blacks and whites (she was not diagnosed until she was in her 20s) that have added to the toll taken on the African-American community by diabetes.
In an arresting image involving sheaves of sugar cane, McCauley draws a link between slavery and subjugation to sugar. She also calmly demonstrates, in the most direct way possible, how she has managed to live with diabetes.
McCauley is passionate when the subject is “my deepest love, the stage.’’ She evokes the exciting period of the 1960s and ’70s in the New York theater scene. She recounts how she passed up a leading role in Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf’’ in the mid-1970s because she was committed to a work by the playwright Ed Bullins and to her teaching at New York University, only to see the actress who took the role win a Tony Award. (McCauley eventually replaced the actress as the Lady in Red and performed the role on Broadway with the original cast.)
After dropping a few big names she worked with at various points in her acting career - Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Joseph Chaikin, Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Anna Deavere Smith, along with numerous other consequential theater figures who, she says, are “people who people know, or ought to know’’ - she ends with a disarming “So there.’’
Early in her performance, shortly after she takes the bite of candy, McCauley poses a question that seems addressed to herself: “How do I look back, go forward, and be here at the same time?’’ Only she can say whether she has found a satisfactory answer to that question in her life, but she manages it in “Sugar.’’