Diabetes Forecast

Robbie McCauley Puts Diabetes on Stage

By Tracey Neithercott ,
Playwright, performance artist, director, and professor at Emerson College in Boston.
Latest Project
Sugar, a one-woman show about McCauley's life with diabetes, which played in early 2012 at Emerson College.
Up Next
McCauley hopes to perform Sugar again in the future, either on stage at Emerson or at another venue.

Robbie McCauley was loaded with sugar—literally. She walked across the stage with a bundle of sugarcane on her back, spotlighted, the audience rapt. They'd come to see McCauley, of course, but there was something else. This time, the play was about her own life. And, after years of silence, her type 1 diabetes.

For a woman whose work has tackled issues such as rape and race, McCauley, 69, was strangely hesitant to bring diabetes into the spotlight. "People didn't talk about it," she says, thinking back to her early 20s, when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Even her family avoided diabetes talk; only recently did McCauley's sister see her give an insulin injection.

Soon after her diagnosis, McCauley headed to New York, where she garnered praise for her role in the Tony-nominated play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf and distinguished herself as a playwright, director, and performance artist as well as a professor. In the early '90s, McCauley's play Sally's Rape—about her great-great-grandmother's life on a Georgia plantation—won an Obie, a prestigious off-Broadway theater award.

In that play, McCauley stood on stage naked as she described the sexual abuse her great-great-grandmother experienced as a slave. And yet even after public disrobing, McCauley was fearful of opening up about her diabetes. "Emotional nakedness is hardest," she says. "You can't take back what you said, and you don't know what people get from it. A body is just a shape."

It took decades for McCauley to decide to tell her story. The play she began writing came to be titled Sugar, a one-woman show that ran in early 2012 at Emerson College in Boston, where she teaches. McCauley wove information about the history of diabetes and its prevalence in the country with stories about her diagnosis and life with diabetes. It's the emotional stuff doctors skip, and she says it's just as important as cold, hard facts. "Both are necessary. There should be more telling stories than there is," she adds. "They're helpful in a different way."

Telling total strangers about her diabetes was cathartic for McCauley, and while Sugar doesn't wrap up nice and tidy with a message, McCauley does engage the audience to make her point. "Many people from the audience said, 'I'm so glad you're doing this show because I didn't know how to talk about it.' And then other people say, 'I wasn't listening to my friend or family member [with diabetes].' "

The play also focuses on race, a subject McCauley often pursues in her work. Sugar was inspired in part by differences in diabetes care between African Americans and whites, particularly the fact that the amputation rate is higher in African Americans. McCauley intertwined facts on racial disparities in health with her personal story, one that includes racial discrimination. "I heard a doctor say he didn't like to give hypodermic needles to 'Negroes,' " she says of why she started on pills, not insulin, when she was diagnosed with diabetes. "That was back in that time when our whole lives were like that."

McCauley took the connection between race and diabetes a step further. "I read some time ago that sugar was one of the main products that slavery was involved with, and of course the slave trade," she says. "Sugar was the basis for the economy." This is why the most powerful image in Sugar was of McCauley carrying sugarcane on her back. It was a symbol of McCauley's heritage and the fact that African Americans are at a greater risk for diabetes and many complications. And it also represented the burden McCauley has carried for decades: the secret of her diabetes.

When she had crossed the stage, McCauley placed the sugarcane on the floor. And just like that, with stories that at one time seemed too personal for production, McCauley unloaded her journey with diabetes for everyone to see.



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