Review: “Milk Like Sugar”

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Jasmine Carmichael in Milk Like Sugar. Milk Like Sugar plays from January 29 – February 27, South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

By Robert Israel

Kirsten Greenidge, a young Boston-area playwright, happened on a news item about a group of teenage girls in Gloucester, MA who made a pregnancy pact: each would get in a family way at the same time, a path they felt represented the best of the limited choices available to them. That news item became the impetus to write Milk Like Sugar, a long one-act that captures the pathos of young clustered and isolated female lives, the maelstrom of internal and external conflicts they face, and the repercussions of their decisions in a fractured, oft-indifferent, world.

The script succeeds despite some gaping flaws. While the drama strongly articulates the young women’s many conflicts in language that captures today’s hypertext(ed) reality – complete with vulgarities, abbreviations and exasperations – the evening comes off as more of a series of well-etched scenes — this is not a cohesively structured play with seamless transitions tied together by an overarching motif. Milk Like Sugar is collection of sharp photographs rather than an in-depth portrait.

There is an attempt to make the Sanders-esque haves-versus-the-have-nots disparity a central motif: the “milk” in the title refers to the powdered substance — said to be found in lower-income homes — that resembles “sugar.” But the class warfare metaphor is stretched way too thin. We need to be given more on what income inequality does to the young women’s psyches, how the desperation of poverty forces them into their dilemma. Yes, they express envy they cannot afford fancy clothes and cell phone covers. Yes, a male character Malik (Marc Pierre) ruminates with envy about the rich folks flying overhead in airplanes; he imagines the well-to-do are mocking him and other poor folk struggling to scrape a living back down on earth. But is that enough? Evidently not, because right before the final curtain Greenidge has her lead character Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) explain the economic theme to us (in case we missed an earlier reference to eating “government cheese”), explicating the title word by word. It’s awkward and contrived. We should have gotten the point earlier in the play — the wrap-up is a sign of insecurity or condescension.

The cast performs admirably, with spirit and sass and lots of captivating body movements (wild banshee-like dancing to hip-hop music). As Annie, Carmichael is the essence of girlishness trapped in an adult body, craving access to a world of maturity that she has only glimpsed. Her smiles are endearingly sweet, and there is a charming clumsiness to her wanton pursuit of a sexuality she feels but has yet to consummate. Her friend Talisha (Shazi Raja) is a perfect foil: brash, sexualized in tight shorts, sexperienced, she prances about with teased hair and garish makeup, using her prowess to captivate her prey. Rounding out the pack is Margie (Carolina Sanchez), who is given some of the play’s most humorous lines, and Keera (Shanae Burch), a church-going girl who is not really a member of the troika but yearns to be part of the group.

The play cries out for dialogue and confrontations that direct us deeper into the conflicts the young women face and how they perceive them. We follow a riff about cell phone covers and, suddenly, the subject of pregnancies is mentioned; we hear Annie ache for “ladybug” covers for the aforementioned cell phone, and then are surprised to hear her express a longing for “little tiny babies” (with “matching” baby bottles that each of her friends will feed their offspring with). Perhaps this stream-of-consciousness is meant to underscore the helter-skelter flow of their minds, the blurring of distinctions, a confusion between realities and fantasies. Maybe their lives are a mishmash and crucial lines are blurred. But the audience needs to be guided through the thickets into the moments of illumination. Slowing down the quicksilver pitter-patter might help here.

Greenidge, in published interviews, has expressed admiration for the late playwright August Wilson, whose works about the African-American experience she first saw performed in Boston as a youngster. There is evidence of homage in Milk Like Sugar, particularly to Wilson’s drama Fences, whose lead character, Troy Maxson, tells his son Cory that he doesn’t have to love him, that loving him is not in his job description as a father. In Milk Like Sugar, Annie talks with her mother Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and expresses a need for love and affection, only to hear Myrna (who had Annie when she was in junior high school) tell her she’s really not so special after all. The stark pathos of this scene does Wilson proud.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara keeps the play moving along effectively. The scenes among the three young women work well when we can actually hear the rhythm of their language, which sometimes is lost or drowned out by piped-in bursts of loud, discordant music. (If sound designer M.L. Dogg turned down the volume it would help matters mightily.) The set, a chain-link fence along the back wall, designed by Cristina Todesco, effectively accentuates the isolation of the young women’s world.

There is much to admire in Milk Like Sugar. The script provides plenty of evidence that this talented playwright is continuing to evolve. As Greenidge’s voice and talent matures, as she absorbs more storytelling techniques, she will no doubt move on to explore a fuller dramatic palette. These vivid snapshots will be left behind for the creation of larger, more revelatory canvases.

**

This review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

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