|Shazi Raja & Carolina Sanchez in "Milk Like Sugar"|
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The current offering of Huntington Theatre Company is the 2011 play “Milk Like Sugar” by Kirsten Greenidge (Luck of the Irish), revised for this production and directed by Huntington Associate Producer M. Bevin O'Gara. The play's title is a bit heavily metaphorical, referring to the powdered milk offered to food stamp recipients, implying a nutrient-empty substitution. Wisely mounted in the small venue of the Roberts Studio (more like its off-Broadway version) in the Calderwood Pavilion, this is a tale of self-esteem, or the lack of it. The playwright once posed the question “where does knowledge come from?” to a variety of students, receiving radically varying answers. An under-served class responded: “from your teacher, from outside of you, so it depends on who your teacher is”. A middle class room of students answered: “from hard work”. A more privileged class pointedly offered: “from within you”. The protagonists of this play fit squarely (at least at first) into the peg of thinking esteem comes from external sources. On the surface this is a simple tale of a small group of teenaged girls and their initial promise to all become “PG” (pregnant) and their subsequent misconceptions.
Annie (Jasmine Carmichael), a sixteen year old high school sophomore, is in the process of choosing a tattoo, a birthday gift given her by her classmates Talisha (Shazi Raja) and Margie (Carolina Sanchez). All three are wrapped up with the notion of having a baby (versus actually having to raise one, not unlike being fascinated with planning a wedding as opposed to the reality of marriage, as O'Gara noted elsewhere). Annie tries to convince her astronomy-loving boyfriend Malik (Mark Pierre), his head in the stars, to conceive with her. Her born-again friend Keera (Shanae Burch) opposes it, as of course does her mother Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander), an aspiring writer. But tattoo artist Antwoine (Matthew J. Harris) is ever ready to assist. Annie has in mind a certain life style to which she aspires and “deserves”, echoing the mantra of modern media and culture that encourage us to believe we deserve things. She wants a baby because she wants her own family; in essence, she wants love. It's the shared desire for love that drives this story about young women and their choices, and how empowered they feel to make choices that they trust are right for them. They're considering what their options are in a manner that they haven't before. Based on a news story of a pregnancy pact in Gloucester, MA (which proved to have been a fabricated hoax), it's the sort of play that's easily described as, to coin a phrase, “ripped from the headlines”. Declaring that having a baby “isn't like real work”, they haven't a clue about what caring for it would entail.
What keeps this work from being overly metaphorical is the combination of wise playwriting, strong direction and a believable cast. One feels as though one is eavesdropping on real teenagers and their collective angst. Carmichael is superb and very natural, while Raja and Sanchez are excellent foils, with Alexander delivering a memorable turn in several chain-smoking scenes. But it's Burch who steals scenes she's in, with her complex character who's not all that she seems to be. The male characters are less developed (and Annie's father and brothers, though mentioned in passing, are never seen). The creative team work is excellent, consisting of colorful Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, apt Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, and fine Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao and Sound Design by M. L. Dogg.
What the playwright has captured with her keen ear for street patois and the rhythms of teenage speech is an entirely credible portrayal of young people who can't foresee how they are choosing a nutrient-deprived “ticket” out of their environment. As is noted more than once by these trapped teens, “What else we got?”. Finding that answer may make Greenidge, a tremendously gifted talent, the future voice of her generation of theatregoers.