a theatre, film & pop culture review
Full Disclosure: I saw Milk Like Sugar in its very first preview at Playwrights Horizons on October 13, but as this co-production with Women’s Project Theater and La Jolla Playhouse transferred from the latter where it received its world premiere in August, it doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate to review it. Even less so because it’s an entirely solid, engaging production.
Sixteen-year-old Annie and her two spunky high school BFFs crave something more than the powdered milk that sits on their shelves — the milk that tastes sweet like sugar, but offers little sustenance. But these couture-obsessed girls in their leopard-print leggings and sparkly sweat suits (costumed perfection by Toni-Leslie James), with their slide phones and incessant sexting, have more interest in tattoos than textbooks. Their attempts to become strong like “lions” result in a pregnancy pact (remember when those were frighteningly fashionable?) and an inked flame on Annie’s hip that sparks a burning desire that only grows stronger as the tattoo grows more elaborate and all-consuming (and Justin Townsend’s lighting and Andre Pluess’s sound design, otherwise nicely effective, becomes wearily redundant).
If this sounds like an overabundance of metaphors, you’re likely right. Ambitious playwright Kirsten Greenidge packs it all into one play: developing womanhood, female bonds and familial issues, socioeconomic constraints, the escapism of evangelism, brand as status, etc. You can’t help but think that these girls — bubbly, pink-clad and already preggers Margie (a hilariously warm and vacuous Nikiya Mathis); aggressive and defensive alpha-female, Talisha (a fierce Cherise Boothe); the thoughtful, but conflicted Annie (Angela Lewis, both sensitive and stubborn) — may represent varying shades of the playwright herself. But of course that doesn’t matter: when the climactic confrontation explodes between Annie and her hardened, bone-weary “moms” (Tonya Pinkins, who, with a Marlboro perpetually hanging from her dry lips, is like a pot of water you watch in nervous fear of just when it will boil over and burn you), the universality of this tremendously detailed piece is made all the more apparent (who doesn’t have mom issues?).
This is not to say that this piece is merely by a woman, about women, for women: Tattoo artist Antwoine (a charismatic LeRoy McClain) and astronomy-lover Malik (J. Mallory-McCree, warm and charming) are central to Annie’s self-discovery, even as they discover themselves through the course of the piece. Sure, they could each use more of a resolution — as could Keera (a loveably awkward Adrienne C. Moore), whose self-denial about her own family and life happiness is funneled into religious escapism — but with so much else going on, and going on so well, it almost seems silly to nitpick. The subject is a tad bit Lifetime-y — and hey, been there, done that — but Greenidge’s punchy drama has power, and the playwright possesses such a knack for language, effortlessly and hilariously fusing urban colloquy with lyricism. Director Rebecca Taichman, with the help of Mimi Lien’s stark and slick set, for the most part stages both the humorous and heavy at a quick pace and top-40 soundtrack that even her ADD, teenaged characters could appreciate.
Unhappily, I couldn’t get the excessively-used Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” out of my head for a full 24 hours after the show. Happily, though, neither could I forget the top-notch cast and Greenidge’s smart, hip and ambitious work. This super-promising talent won’t be “emerging” for long.