- Milk Like Sugar
In 2008, a sharp increase in pregnancies at a Massachusetts high school caused the principal to assume that the young women had created a “pregnancy pact,” a secret agreement to get pregnant and raise children together. As explained in the production’s program notes, this news story inspired playwright Kirsten Greenidge to write Milk Like Sugar to “bring these girls’ humanity onto the stage.” With its introspective dialogue and energetic performances, the play showcased Greenidge’s intent: instead of becoming another teenage melodrama, the production humanized troubled teenagers and pregnant youth. By depicting her characters as African American (the teens from the original news story were white), Greenidge complicated the reception of the play by risking a reinscription of contemporary black stereotypes about poor, urban families, welfare queens, and absent fathers. However, due to Greenidge’s arresting, poetic dialogue and strong performances by the actors, Milk Like Sugar wove complex negotiations throughout the play text, debating the desire for unconditional love from a child versus the aspirations for an education and career, and, ultimately, offering a production that adds to the growing anthology of new African American playwrights whose work should be produced. Too often, scripts out of the mainstream or by playwrights of color languish in workshop after workshop, never seeing full production support. La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Milk Like Sugar demonstrates the power of encounter, challenging regional-theatre audiences to confront characters and storylines often marginalized—or silenced completely—in commercial venues. In doing so, this production resists historic and systemic racist, classist, and sexist production practices endemic to US professional theatre.
The play began abruptly, loudly, and energetically, as Talisha, Annie, and Margie (played by Cherise Boothe, Angela Lewis, and Nikiya Mathis, respectively) burst onto the stage, chattering about boys, their social status, and cell phones. Although the thrust of the plot was simple, symbolic undertones made for a multifaceted play. With the excitement of baby-shower gifts on their minds, the friends rashly made a pregnancy pact to gestate and raise babies together. Although agreeing, Annie had doubts. The play then followed her deliberations on whether to become pregnant or to follow the desires for a life beyond a growing belly. To avoid making a decision, Annie occasionally visited a tattoo parlor to talk to its handsome artist and expand a growing flame tattoo across her midsection. The tattoo symbolized a fire burning from within, at once threatening to consume, as well as to purify her. Although the metaphor was heavy-handed, it provided an outward reflection of Annie’s frustrations regarding her limited socioeconomic position, a lack of support from her mother, and the peer pressure from her girlfriends.
All ensemble members’ performances were strong, and the adult actors successfully portrayed the young teens’ vivacity and speed. As the only adult-aged character in the play, Tony Award– winner Tonya Pinkins was heartbreaking as Annie’s mother, a veritable onstage image of a dream deferred. She usually sat stone-faced at a Formica [End Page 439] kitchen table, do-rag on her head, cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth. At times, I questioned the motive behind these scenes, considering that on the surface, the mother character could be interpreted as a welfare-queen stereotype. Yet her final confrontation with Annie in act 2 spoke more to the generational gap between the mother—an office janitor without reason to hope—and her daughter—a high school student with the world waiting at her feet. Denied her own youth and possibilities of something better, the mother cannot reconcile an alternative for her own daughter. “You are nothing,” she screamed at Annie in the argument’s height, but in actuality she admitted her own undoing.
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Greenidge’s dialogue alternated between breathless, unfinished sentences of tongue-in-cheek girl-talk and lyrical, poetic passages of unrealized dreams. Annie’s nonlinear...