Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Milk Like Sugar
Huntington Theatre Company
Review by Nancy Grossman

Also see Nancy's review of Pippin


Carolina Sanchez, Jasmine Carmichael, and Shazi Raja
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
In the summer of 2008, after an unusual spike in pregnancy rates at Gloucester High School, a story broke about a "pregnancy pact" among a group of eighteen teenage girls. It made its way into national magazines, network news, and international films before eventually being debunked as a rumor that had been manufactured. However, the events inspired Huntington playwriting fellow Kirsten Greenidge to examine the circumstances faced by adolescent girls growing up in the 21st century and the choices—or lack of choices—they have for their futures. The resulting play Milk Like Sugar was first produced at the LaJolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2011, before opening at New York's Playwrights Horizon where it won Greenidge a 2012 Obie award for Playwriting. The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting this play in the intimate confines of the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts under the thoughtful direction of M. Bevin O'Gara.

O'Gara draws fully realized performances from an ensemble cast of five women and two men, each of whom wears their character like a second skin. All but one (Ramona Lisa Alexander) are making their Huntington debuts and bring a fresh, edgy perspective to the stage. Jasmine Carmichael (Annie), Shazi Raja (Talisha), and Carolina Sanchez (Margie) play a tight-knit trio of friends who seek to further their friendship by planning to have baby girls at the same time. They fantasize about baby showers, dressing their babies alike and pushing their strollers together in the park, but mostly they imagine receiving unconditional love from a cuddly infant they can call their own and being able to get out from under parental rule.

That fantasy, or choice, signifies the world view of the three girls, until Annie, arguably the brightest, begins to question whether it is the only option. She is influenced by external forces to consider further education, spiritual exploration, or the simple act of getting on a boat to experience something different. Her mother Myrna's (Alexander) story serves as a cautionary tale about being trapped by early motherhood and stuck in a dead end job. Malik (Marc Pierre), the boy whom Annie targets to be her baby daddy, is nobody's fool and teaches her that she has the power to expand her horizons, even if she only gazes at the stars in the sky. A new girl in school who is far from hip becomes an unlikely friend, but Annie is drawn to Keera's (Shanae Burch) positive spirit, close family ties, and belief in a higher power. The local tattoo artist Antwoine (Matthew J. Harris) becomes a kindred soul who may or may not be a dangerous influence.

From the outset, Milk Like Sugar looks, sounds, and feels different from the usual fare at the Huntington, with Cristina Todesco's set design dominated by a cyclone fence (which opens to reveal the kitchen at Annie's and for furnishings to roll in and out), costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee's creations reflecting the girls' personalities, the rapid-paced vernacular of the diverse teens, and designer M.L. Dogg's soundscape filled with loud, hard-driving music of the generation. Talisha is tough talking, street smart, and very sexualized, and always plugged in to her smart phone. Margie is a Latina who is already pregnant, but she is a little girl in a woman's body. Annie seems to have a little more going for her, but when they are together, they share a bond forged by dissatisfaction with their home lives and their perceived bleak futures. When Annie strays from the joint plan, she violates the power dead even rule, fracturing the balance of the relationship and unwittingly setting herself adrift on unsteady seas.

Greenidge exhibits a powerful mastery of dialogue and distinguishes her characters by what comes out of their mouths. Although they are not all equally developed, the actors' portrayals capture what is unique about each of them. Raja has the swagger to show Talisha's hard shell, but her vulnerability and desperation leach through. Sanchez goes from Margie's high of celebrating the joys of impending motherhood to the reality of the drudgery of diapers and laundry. Burch makes great use of her sunny smile and big dimples to convey Keera's outlook on life, and she effectively curbs her enthusiasm when her secret is revealed. Pierre makes an impression in a limited role by showing that Malik refuses to be a stereotype, even if it means giving up the girl. His maturity and inner strength come through, especially when he continues to try to help Annie despite her self-destructive tendencies.

Individually, both Carmichael and Alexander convey the myriad struggles of Annie and Myrna respectively. However, they do some of their best work together when daughter and mother share scenes. The authenticity of their relationship is spot on, as Annie seeks love and approval from the mother who can't see beyond her own raw deal. Rather than supporting and helping her child avoid the same pitfalls, Myrna chooses to hold Annie responsible for her misery and condemn her to suffer the consequences. Alexander's final declaration is chilling, and Carmichael's last resort is heartbreaking.

The title of Milk Like Sugar refers to sweet powdered milk that Annie's mother keeps on the shelf. It is high in flavor, but low in nutritional value and Annie speaks of it disparagingly. The symbolism seems to be that her mother is incapable of nurturing her or providing substance in their relationship. When Annie suggests making changes to the family dynamic, Myrna shows a little interest, but can't follow through. It keeps falling on sixteen-year old Annie to be the change she wants to see in the world, but the price of dreaming is steep. Greenidge presents her with a lot of doors; Annie just has to walk through the right one.

Milk Like Sugar performances through February 27, 2016, by Huntington Theatre Company, Roberts Studio Theatre at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.

Written by Kirsten Greenidge, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design, Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Design, M.L. Dogg; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle

Cast (in order of appearance): Shazi Raja, Jasmine Carmichael, Carolina Sanchez, Matthew J. Harris, Marc Pierre, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Shanae Burch