All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Kirsten Greenidge’s “Milk Like Sugar” is so informed and so on target in its depiction of its characters, its setting, and the situations in which a questioning young black urban girl might find herself, it ranks easily as one of the most important plays of the year.
Greenridge goes into a world that is rarely examined by the theater, a disadvantaged black urban neighborhood such as any city dweller will recognize, and reveals it as being parochial and claustrophobic, yet hopeful for those who challenge what seem like entrenched mores and practices.
Greenidge doesn’t try to tell a complete story that covers every resident or attitude one can find in a city ghetto, but her choice to be specific to teenagers spouting opinions and making grown-up decisions makes “Milk Like Sugar”particularly pointed and effective. The play centers on a next generation that can perpetuate some behaviors and ways of life that have kept the ghetto immobile or use their individuality and powers of observation to foment changes, at least in themselves.
Greenidge provides the reality and the situations that a young person has to consider through the filter of a insular, judgmental society that has its own constraints and outlooks and could turn unfavorably on one who doesn’t accept or conform. Simpatico Theatre Project’s Allen Radway and an exceptional cast, led by the empathy-evoking Nastassja Baset, vividly brings Greenidge’s reality to the Adrienne Skybox stage and makes the plight of several characters clear and thought-provoking.
Radway and company do not flinch at the tougher passages in “Milk Like Sugar,” and the result is a taut, affecting production that addresses significant contemporary subjects in ways that absorb and elicit both thoughtful and emotional reactions. The Simpatico production reinforces the importance of Greenidge’s work, bringing out all of its power and incisiveness.
“Milk Like Sugar” begins in a tattoo parlor on Annie’s 16th birthday, one she intends to celebrate by getting a ladybug inscribed in her as yet unblemished skin.
She is joined there by her best friends, Tanisha, who is on a campaign to be called “T,” and Margie, who are critical of Annie’s ladybug choice because it is “little girlish.” They want her to get a red rose like they both have so their friendship, formed when they were the only girls in the seventh grade to return to school with “boobs,” will have a symbol they all bear.
Annie is resistant. The rose doesn’t suit her, but she agrees to forgo the ladybug and at least match her friends by getting a red-colored tattoo. She chooses a flame.
Tattoos are an “in” thing in the Boston ghetto where Annie, T, and Margie live. Any girl who doesn’t have one is frowned upon. A tattoo is a sign that you know the score and are going to do what is required to be considered cool and friendworthy.
Peer pressure is rife among Annie’s set. They represent the girls in their school who are both tough and trendsetting. Or at least trend-upholding. While waiting for the tattoo artist, a friend of a friend of “T” who has never put a tattoo on anything but an orange and who is doing Annie a favor by doing her tattoo for free, the girls talk about all kinds of things they think spell luxury, class, and style.
Consumer goods are important to this bunch. Margie, who is pregnant, yo, or “PG,” as she says, envisions getting a Coach baby bag because she intends to include it among the gifts she’s listing on a baby registry.
Naivety and innocence clash with what counts as ghetto chic, items the girls, who have no way of knowing better, think will give them allure and make them look sophisticated when they’re more likely to brand them the opposite, the tattoos included.
The girls know what will give them local status, and they seek to be the hottest young women on the block.
I must keep mentioning peer pressure because it is a driving force, or at least a constant cause for tension in “Milk Like Sugar.” Greenidge understands the critical need one would have to fit in among other teens in a world limited to the borders of your watchful, gossipy neighborhood. Acceptance depends on doing what the kids who will tease you, mock you, and even assault you prescribe. Coolness is carefully defined, and woe betide anyone who varies from the rules.
This is probably true in many communities, ghetto or not, but Greenidge brings home the importance of compliance with expectations as they stand. For Annie, T, and Margie, those expectations include dismissing or belittling schoolwork, seeking status items, being popular, having hairdos and clothes people won’t make fun of, getting tattoos and piercings, drinking, and sexual activity.
Sex becomes the crux of “Milk Like Sugar” when T and Annie agree that it would be cool if they became PG like Margie, so the three friends can all strut down the ghetto main street carrying their Coach baby bags and wheeling their infants in matching camouflage strollers, also to be provided by the generous readers of their baby registries. The girls regard babies as sources of unconditional love or dolls to dress up to the envy of other mothers thereabout. At no time do Annie, T, or the already with child Margie consider the expense of having a child, the medical care involved, or even feedings and diaper changes. Margie is stunned when, in a later scene at the tattoo parlor, she reports all the money a state social worker told her she would need for proper pre-natal care and post-birth necessities. Annie’s mother, Myrna, just about laughs when Annie, discussing Margie, tells her a baby requires no work. “Babies wake you every two hours and don’t know when it’s night,” she says.
The girls, as grown up as they think they are, and as experienced as they may be in some areas, have no sense of reality, no grounding or guidance, Myrna aside, to tell them when they’re sliding into folly that could, and probably will, affect their entire lives.
The idea about the girls being pregnant together catches on. They make a pact that T and Annie will join Margie in pregnancy within a week of their tattoo parlor gathering.
Annie and T are thrilled at the prospect, visions of elaborate baby gifts dancing in their heads. T already has a father in mind. She is seeing an older man, a guy in his 20s, and she knows she can make a baby with him.
For Annie, conceiving will be more complicated. She would never admit it to T or Margie, but she is a virgin. Besides, she has no boyfriend. T and Margie think she does. A boy keeps calling her cell phone as frequently as Margie’s beau and T’s older guy ring theirs. The girls tease Annie about the attention she’s been receiving from a boy they all know, Malik, a senior in the school where they are all sophomores, and encourage her to accept his request for date and to make a fuss about using protection when the big moment for coitus arrives.
Annie is excited by the prospect. She likes Malik, but likes it more that he is interested in her. He seems a good candidate for fatherhood, and Annie takes the time to calculate the day she’s going to ovulate so she can be sure to be PG by the deadline the girls set.
Greenidge is shrewd about introducing all of the above in an animated scene in which the girls talk non-stop and barely countenance the presence of the apprentice tattoo artist, Antwoine, who is not the sleaze they expect and who has occasionally constructive things to say about tattooing and his talent.
Radway is just as adept as keeping the girls’ conversation lively and natural. Peppered with slang, yo, and full of taunts the girls hurl at each other and anyone else whose name comes up, especially if that person has committed the crime of having the wrong phone, like Antwoine’s flip phone, the byplay among Nastassja Baset as Annie, Danielle Leneé as Margie, and Melanie Lawrence as T comes off realistically to the extent you half forget you’re watching a play and think you’re in a Boston tattoo dive listening to teenage girls having their immature chatter.
Greenidge and Radway don’t have to highlight or emphasize anything in particular. You learn all you need from the way the girls talk about a specific line of clothing or disparage someone or something that doesn’t meet their standard of cool. That old friend, peer pressure, is omnipresent as T especially takes issue with Annie’s selection of a tattoo, Antwoine’s likelihood to produce a good one, and any reluctance for any reason about going through with the plan to have babies. The girls, after all, are 16. They are behind the curve in terms of motherhood and are committed to doing something about it.
T is the toughest and most ghettoized of the girls. Sporting a thick tight Afro you can hide small objects in, she is the ranking bully of the group, the one who will enforce her will physically if she must. T doesn’t take school seriously and will drop out once she’s PG, but she threatens to beat up a good student if she doesn’t write a passing paper for her.
T lives and buys into all of the clichés of ghetto life. If her older boyfriend beats her, she tosses the abuse off as her man showing off in front of his friends. You know, showing who’s boss. Using her logic, T earns her black eye by being slow on the uptake when her man signals for her to choose an expensive phone he can buy to impress everyone how generous and good he is to his baby’s mother.
Margie is more neutral. She sets up the pregnancy pact by being PG. She also talks about all the treasures she expects to collect once she puts her registry list online. Margie is the initiator of unlikely hopes, but she becomes benign as Greenidge’s play proceeds.
Annie is the character who becomes aware of options. How she learns them is seen in a series of well-crafted sequences in “Milk Like Sugar.” Feisty but ingenuous Nastassja Baset makes the 16-year-old’s journey poignant to the extent you hope constantly she will take in some of what she hears and observes and will make better choices than T or Margie could be expected to make.
Annie is as enthusiastic as any of the girls about having a baby. A cuddlebug in Oshkosh being shown off in a fine carriage suits her fine. She considers motherhood the height of achievement and can’t wait to get her baby started.
Annie will face influences and obstacles she doesn’t expect. The course of ghetto girl life is pre-ordained according to T and Margie, especially T, but Annie doesn’t find it so smooth.
One problem is Malik. Though he earns money by selling his mother’s unused prescription pills, he uses it to buy a telescope and advance his interest in astronomy.
Malik is as astute and, in his own way, as cool as anyone in Annie’s milieu. He is also an individual. He sees what happens around him, and he participates in it just so far because Malik notices and longs for variety and culture that can only be found beyond the marginal fringes of a few square urban blocks.
From his childhood, Malik has been interested in space and the stars. He seeks spots away from the crowded row homes and tenements that so compactly shelter his neighbors. Malik knows about the Big Dipper and other formations in the night sky. He found a star map among his deserted father’s possessions and developed an interest in the heavens and all that be seen in it at night.
Annie’s first date with Malik is on a rooftop where he expounds on the wonders of the visible universe. He is interested in the Milky Way. Annie is focused on conceiving her baby.
When Malik waxes energetically about planets and constellations, Annie is bored and derisive, rolling her eyes, tapping her foot, and making unkind cracks. She castigates Malik for being interested in stars when she is standing next to him offering sex.
Even if Malik was game, Annie has complaints. If he knew she was coming to join him on the roof, why doesn’t he have a blanket ready for their comfort? And why is there nothing to drink?
The point is Malik did not expect sex. He is not a prude or a virgin. But he makes it clear he wants to go to college and study. He tells Annie the reason he spread the word he was interested in her is because he noticed an English teacher, who recognizes talented students by stapling a college brochure on well-written papers, attached such a brochure to one of Annie’s. To Malik, that was a sign Annie had potential and, perhaps, ambitions like his to continue his education, learn something useful, and leave the ghetto and his drug-abusing mother to their own devices.
The most staggering thing Malik tells Annie is he doesn’t want to be stuck being anyone’s “baby daddy.” Annie bristles when Malik jumps back a pace as she reaches to unfasten his belt.
Meanwhile, Annie is every bit as snide and carping as T usually is. Malik is judged a nothing, a nerd, a nice boy. He doesn’t want to be a “baby daddy.” He can forget about her.
In spite of herself, Annie can’t help occasionally thinking of Malik and what he said about college.
Malik is not the only influence on Annie. T constantly makes fun of a heavy girl who talks about religion and wears modest blouses and a denim skirt that comes past her ankles.
This girl, Keera, is a transplant from D.C. and a good student. T leans on her to write papers and gives her deadlines Keera had better meet if she doesn’t want to feel T’s fist against her jaw. In a realistically violent scene, T grabs Keera by the top of her buttoned-to-the-neck flowered blouse and warns her to get cracking on an assignment due in a couple of days.
Annie is a bit fascinated by Keera, who talks about her strict, religious home and how she and her siblings have to be home at six each evening so they can eat dinner as a family. Keera dismisses T’s threats and belittling. They are source of attention for her at school, and she receives more positive treatment elsewhere.
Or does she? Curtisha Starks does a cunning job of keeping that a mystery as she plays the open, amiable Keera, who always smiles, always puts a Pollyanna bright side on the bleakest of situations, and always seems happy within herself, buoyed by her Bible and an internal conversations she conducts to amuse, lecture, and encourage herself.
It doesn’t make a difference how many facets there are to Keera, and the talented Starks reveals several. It’s the effect the more optimistic and spiritual parts of Keera’s stream of conscience have on Annie that counts. As does the serious consideration Annie gives to some of what Keera says.
Annie’s world is expanding in ways she did not ask for or want but which acquaint her with options no one has discussed. She still has the burden of getting pregnant to honor the pact T now says will be a test of friendship. She still has to find a father she’s willing to accept for her child. She still thinks college is an expensive dream beyond her reach.
But she has been enlightened. Even if she doesn’t perceive or welcome that enlightenment, it’s there nagging at her. Eventually what Annie has heard from Malik and Keera begins to eat at her and make her rethink what and whom she values.
Myrna, her mother, is a wild card who says one thing and does another. Myrna seems ambitious. She is certainly a responsible parent, as is Annie’s father, a cab driver. Annie has a secure roof, regular meals, and a mother who talks to her. But when it comes to basics, Myrna spouts the logic of the ghetto which Annie has begun to recognize as the language of defeat or, at best a status quo she is beginning to think will not satisfy her.
Annie has been awakened, but Greenidge is smart enough to make that a reason for Annie feeling more confusion than she faced when all she had to do was follow the rules of urban coolness or listen to T.
Choices are no longer as easy for Annie. She’s encountered new peers who exercise a different kind of pressure. Malik is especially committed to seeking the knowledge and relative freedom he craves.
Annie’s in a quandary, and T and Margie can’t help because they think she’s turning against them. Besides, they could not begin to understand and respect all of the information that is overwhelming Annie and making her mind a jumble.
Only Antwoine is sympathetic. He is also apathetic. Which serves Annie in a number of ways.
Forces impinge on Annie. She is too intelligent to ignore her observations or the wisdom Malik, Keera, Antwoine, and even Myrna impart.
“Milk Like Sugar” goes deeply into uncharted theatrical territory. It takes Annie from having no choices to being in a quandary over several. It marks the maturing process of a young woman who suddenly gives thought to matters blind adherence to social mores so recently made easy or predictable.
Greenidge is honest and direct in her approach to Annie’s journey. Radway is also determined to keep all realistic and natural as possible, and he manages to achieve that.
Even fanciful moments, such as Keera dancing in ecstasy for her Lord or Malik speaking philosophically about a wider world, have a core of genuineness about them. Greenidge knows her subject well, and Radway brings her script to the stage without losing a jot of her truthfulness and authenticity.
Greenidge’s title refers to Malik resenting a childhood in which his mother, not knowing if drug addiction would leave her fit to go shopping or tend to her children, stocked powdered milk in the cupboard like other mothers store sacks of sugar. It’s a reference to a world of neglect and expediency. It’s also a symbol of someone who, in sane moments, prepares for the worst she knows is going to recur. The author is adroit at showing the trap a ghetto can be, but is equally adept at showing Annie a constructive alternative that is hers to embark on or not. The beauty of Greenidge’s work is none of Annie’s options are made to seem cloying or goody-two-shoes in a contrived, sentimental way. Greenidge and Radway keep “Milk Like Sugar” stark and fraught with hurdles only Annie can decide to jump. Annie’s plight is too intense to be neat and easy, and neither the author nor the director pretend it can be.
The play and Radway’s production are chocked with dramatic moments. A confrontation scene between Annie and her mother is gutwrenching on two levels, one of which is what we learn about Myrna and how it doesn’t preclude us from liking her or thinking her maternal actions belie the harshest of her words. Annie’s initial reaction to Malik’s dreaminess and reluctance to have sex also registers deeply, as does the instant when T grabs Keera by her blouse.
Beyond drama, Greenidge and Radway build in a lot of suspense and tension. Annie’s decisions and behavior begin to mean a lot to us. We want to take Myrna’s role and guide her, especially since has become so probing and reflective.
Then there’s the times our hearts sink, such as when the girls first suggest that all three having a baby around the same time is a good idea or when Annie scoffs at the teacher stapling college information to her paper.
As play and production, Simpatico’s “Milk Like Sugar” holds you firmly and keeps you absorbed in all that happens.
Radway stages the play is a kind of three-quarter round which gives your neck some exercise as you go between four playing spaces, the dining room in the center of the stage, the tattoo parlor and roof where Malik stargazes to one side, and the school locker room to the other.
However your neck gets craned, Simpatico’s “Milk Like Sugar” is worth following. It can’t help but involve and affect you.
Nastassja Baset personifies the honesty and authenticity Greenidge and Radway strive for and succeed in bringing to the stage.
She can be a great comrade to her friends, flippant and insulting to Malik and her mother, and contemplative when left on stage solo.
Baset shows Annie’s democratic nature by the way she treats Keera as a peer when everyone else is school regards her as either a punching bag or a joke. You cringe at Annie’s assault on Malik while appreciating how well Baset is playing a girl who acts spoiled and entitled when she has nothing to offer a young man with such sense and perspective.
Baset’s versatility and range are admirable. She can move from being a laughing, conspiratorial crony to being a thoughtful, mature young woman with aplomb.
Melanie Lawrence is just as convincingly realistic as T, whose hardness extends to her taking abuse from her boyfriend just as she heaps abuse on Keera and Annie.
T is the character who will always be tied to the ghetto because she accepts what it is and signs up to be part of it. Her attitudes are especially rankling, if only because you know T represents young woman who believe and behave as she will.
Danielle Leneé has a wonderful scene is which Margie talks about all she will derive from motherhood. She is a good sidekick to Annie and T. Like T, Margie may be wed to the ghetto, but, as Leneé plays her, she approaches her life more softly and more stoically than T does.
Kimberly S. Fairbanks is stolid as Myrna. She can be hopeful to the point of being delusional in her own right, believing for example she will be promoted from a cleaning lady to an office clerk if she just sits at a desk and looks businesslike. She can also dish out recrimination for having sacrificed for children she began having when she was a teen and for what she considers to be disregard and disrespect from an accusatory Annie.
Fairbanks can raise the Skybox temperature with her intensity. When Myrna turns her temper towards Annie, true fireworks emerge, so much so you can’t decide which character for which to have empathy.
Brandon Pierce brings graceful ease to Malik, a young man who stays calm and resolute in the face of both insult and temptation.
Pierce plays Malik as a gentleman who is above the rough talk and negative attitudes of the ghetto. Yes, Malik earns his way by peddling stolen pills, but like a modern-day Jean Valjean, he has a noble purpose for doing so. Pierce conveys Malik’s realistic side while also showing the wondering nature that motivates him to study and to devote time to his love for astronomy.
Curtisha Starks has a lot to play as Keera, a girl who is not all she shows on the surface. It isn’t so much that Keera is deep, although she can eloquently explain how religious and belief help her, but that she has to entertain and encourage herself. Keera knows the woman she wants to be. Her quandary will be how to become that woman before she gets consumed by her attempt.
Starks easily conveys the outsider in Keera’s first appearances as a T’s put-upon foil, but she unveils a trunkload of traits before she makes her exit. One of the best moments is when Starks covers a scene change in another part of the stage by doing a snazzy dance in Keera’s awkward but rhythmic style.
Walter DeShields captures the nonchalant nature of Antwoine, a competent, intelligent man who can offer useful advice and who knows how to make the best of an opportune situation.
“Milk Like Sugar” has its surprises, one in particular that made me do a double take. This play seems simple, but it is about a lot and covers vast ground to show a story that is an informative as it is entertaining.
Colin Mcllvaine found a beautiful dining room table that serves as a centerpiece for this production. His four playing spaces amply suggest their locales and are quite fitting for them. Larry Fowler’s sound design gets you dancing on occasion. Lizzy Pecora’s costumes showed the taste of the three girls and various states of Myrna’s personality.
“Milk Like Sugar” runs through Sunday, March 8, produced by Simpatico Theatre Project at the Adrienne Skybox, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. An Industry Night performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, March 2. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-423-0254 or by visiting www.simpaticotheatre.org.