Milk Like Sugar
by John Stoltenberg
This beautiful play about black teenagers with bleak futures left me with such a melancholy sadness that two days later (on what was then Election Day), it had not gone away.
I share that not to keep anyone away from seeing the play, which opened Sunday night at Mosaic Theater Company in a profoundly moving production directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. The script by Kirsten Greenidge is tender and trenchant, at times breathtakingly lyrical, as we can hear in the actors’ voices and see in surtitles. To ensure that all shows this season will be accessible to the Deaf community, Mosaic has launched an initiative involving simultaneous projection of the text onto the set.
And what a text it is.
The premise of the play is that three 16-year-old girls promise to get pregnant together. Margie (Ghislaine “Gigi” Dwarka), who is already pregnant, goads Talisha (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and Annie (Kashayna Johnson) to get busy and be PG too. The three have been BFs since their breasts developed early, the beginning basis of their bond. Theirs is a giddy and scrappy sisterhood, adrift in superficial obsessions with brand names, boys, and baby showers.
During a scene early in the play Annie tries to get with 16-year-old Malik (a sweetly earnest Vaughn Ryan Midder) so she can keep her part of the pact. Annie’s attempts to seduce him are not working because Malik has aspirations for himself—to find a ticket out of these deprived straits. Poverty and institutionalized neglect are the parameters of the play. Its title Milk Like Sugar refers to powdered milk, a staple of the poor. So it is with a touching sense of honor, self-esteem, and altruism that Malik demurs about having sex and tries to elevate Annie’s sights for herself instead.
MALIK: Poppin’ out babies before you can vote ain’t for you.
ANNIE: I’m, I’m tryin’ to find a more excellent way.
MALIK: Yeah, what way that?
Malik shows Annie his way: a telescope he bought in hopes of making a favorable impression on college admissions with his interest in astronomy. But Annie turns on him and mocks him.
ANNIE: No school gonna think this the astronomy club, Malik. You shouldna wasted your money….
MALIK: You can be real nasty, you know that? I’m…I’m tryina help you. I ain’t interested in throwing away my ticket and staying around here the rest of my life, wasting away like the rest of you all.
ANNIE: What that supposed to mean?
MALIK: The world a beautiful place. If it knocks you loose, it your job to hold on tighter.
The play is littered with lovely lines like that last one.
For any hearing audience member interested in how dramatic literature gets from page to stage, the technical effect of the surtitles becomes an enhancement of the theatergoing experience. It offers instant opportunities to read Greenidge’s idiomatic dialog while being constantly blown away by the rhythms and inflections the talented actors have found in it to play.
Much of Milk Like Sugar seems quite funny at first; on a textual surface it’s so skillfully crafted and performed that it plays like a clever comedy with a soupçon of social commentary. But slowly the seriousness of what the characters each face creeps in, jumps out from around corners, startles, and steadily the story becomes sobering.
Annie’s mother, Myrna (a strikingly strong Deidra LaWan Starnes), has a job cleaning offices at night. She gets fired from it for using a computer to compose short stories, which she believes will be her ticket, though she is functionally illiterate.
The three girls in the ill-conceived pregnancy pact have a classmate named Keera (a poignantly waiflike Tyasia Velines) whom they ice out of their circle. Keera, who is very religious, proselytizes with zeal as though it’s her spiritual ticket out. Meanwhile she lives an illusion to mask the hardships of her actual life.
The play begins with a visit by the three girlfriends, all terrifically played, to a tattoo parlor to seal their pact with matching ink. There they meet a 23-year-old tattoo artist named Antwoine (an affectingly gentle Jeremy Keith Hunter), who has both a talent for art and a big heart. Annie later visits him alone, for the insemination she seeks, and she asks him about the artwork he creates with a needle.
ANNIE: You always knew you wanted to draw? … Like when you was little? Like someone liked what you drew and said you’re good, you on the right path with that.
ANTWOINE: Used to draw little cartoons for my Dad. Corny, but he he liked them—
ANNIE: Cause it’d much be easier around here if I had something I was really good at, something lift me up above everything else everybody else. Like this girl down the hall in my building she plays the cello and got into one of those programs. She goes to high school in New Hampshire now. Comes home at Christmas only cause they lock the dorm. That her ticket out and she not letting go of that ticket for nothing. I don’t have a ticket.
None of the kids in Milk Like Sugar get handed a ticket. None of them get told that they’re good, or that they’re on the right path. Teachers of any quality leave for better jobs in better schools.
The kids do have hope. They are all full of hope. Eloquent and soulful hope, even when misguided (meaning unguided). But Milk Like Sugar frames their hoping so we cannot mistake it for a sugarcoated happy ending.
Milk Like Sugar now at Mosaic goes to the heart with heaps of humor—then breaks it to tears with the aftershock of authenticity.