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Milk Like Sugar

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nikiya Mathis, Cherise Booth, Angela Lewis, and LeRoy McClain.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

Heavy-handed is as heavy-handed does, and boy does it do a number on Milk Like Sugar. Kirsten Greenidge's play, which Playwrights Horizons is presenting in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, is a textbook example of good intentions and a good message being squashed beneath the weight of their delivery mechanism. That the casting, the direction, and the design are almost entirely wrong for what's ostensibly a bracing little morality tale about urban blight of the soul is somewhat incidental. That Greenidge and her director, Rebecca Taichman, are so determined to put across their message they're willing to pummel the play and us into the ground along the way is more difficult to overcome—especially when that much work and pushing should not be needed.

We have, after all, been flooded with the sad story of the desecration of the African-American family and soul for years, if not decades, in every form of entertainment media. Here we follow Annie (Angela Lewis), a high school sophomore made internally desolate by her hardscrabble existence. Her mother, Myrna (Tonya Pinkins), is a cleaning woman with delusions of literacy. Her father and brothers are never at home. And her friends, Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and Margie (Nikiya Mathis), are too wrapped up in the meaningless minutiae of their own lives (what cell phones, whether flip, slide, or touch, say about their owners' status is a favorite topic of conversation) to live any better.

So you can see why Talisha, Margie, and Annie want to anchor themselves, which they decide to do by establishing a pregnancy pact. It's easy enough for the two other girls to follow through (Margie's baby is already on the way), but the boy Annie picks out to "help" her, Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), is not taken in by her sweet talk and fast-moving hands. He's got bigger dreams, and he's working to achieve them, even if it means selling his chronically ill mother's leftover medication. Instead, he plants a different seed in Annie: the idea that life can be better. This is later reinforced by the unpopular girl at school, Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), whose warm family life and hot religious convictions steady her, and which she's sure can do the same for Annie if she commits to them.

No, nothing here is new, but it's solid enough to form the foundation for a bitter tragedy about growing up poor and neglected in America today. Any old story can feel freshly minted when it's told from a different perspective, and if it employs dramatic flair, sparkling characters, and fiery dialogue, it's even easier to scrape the dust off an ossified concept. Neither Greenidge nor Taichman bothers with any of this.

Much of the dialogue rings like a spiritless parody of inner-city Ebonics, with so many instances of words like "yo" and "moms," phrases like "mad cool," and haphazard grammatical construction that each new sentence sounds like a sleepwalking Spike Lee helmed a slush-pile Afterschool Special. Such writing might pair naturally with this specific subject matter, but only if everything surrounding it is minutely detailed and honest, which is not the case here.

It's most evident in the performances. Mallory-McCree and LeRoy McClain, as the tattoo artist Antwoine, who inspires Annie's vision of personal beauty, are convincing if not remarkable in their roles. But Lewis, Boothe, Mathis, and most surprisingly Pinkins are hands-down terrible, the exaggerated writing pulling them so far over the top that they quickly begin resembling blabbing broads from a Martin Lawrence venture: all street, no substance. This is the point, of course, but it's taken to absurd and grating lengths, and exacerbated by line readings that sound as though the women are sucking on cotton balls, making their few potentially comprehensible words even more difficult to absorb.

Unfortunately, accepting these women at face value is challenging for another reason: Except for Pinkins, they all look far too old. A story about young people and their bad choices requires at least the illusion of youth and preferably innocence. Lewis, Boothe, and Mathis appear solidly mid 20s; Moore, despite coming across as properly sensitive and thoughtful, looks a decade older than that, with a far-from-svelte figure that doesn't aid her in conjuring the necessary vision of a wisp of an unnoticed adolescent.

Taichman's other choices are about as bizarre. Her concept is vaguely minimalistic, apparently to highlight the barren landscape through with Annie is wandering, but this is at odds with the colorful work she's elicited from the actors. The pacing is a lurching, toxic blend of hyperactivity and stasis that renders every scene its own new, lightly rehearsed play. The chief feature of Mimi Lien's set is what looks like a moving, neon-framed cinder-block wall, which swaths the background of every scene in a featureless gray, and which Justin Townsend lights with a succession of blaring primary colors. The effect of all this is probably supposed to be dreamlike, but the collision of conflicting ideas nudges it closer to nightmare territory.

The same is true of the rest of the play. Greenidge attempts to address the black family dynamic, economic apocalypse, and religious hypocrisy, but lacks the discipline and clarity to do it all in the hour and 45 minutes she's allotted for herself. This encourages ramshackle structuring, clichéd plot twists galore (would you believe that Keera is not what she seems, that mom doesn't take to Annie's newfound independence?, or that Antwoine's helping Annie break the cycle only thrusts her back into it?), and bizarre imagery: Malik is into telescopes, which he uses to look into the sky at the planes he's positive are full of people staring down at him in disapproval, but that he's sure will be his ticket out of his ghettoized existence? Huh?

Then there's the title. Its words originate with Malik as a symbol of modern poverty, and Annie later picks them up as a symbol of her own nutritionally deficient life. Her train of thought on this subject is not simple to follow: "We supposed to be drinking real milk ‘stead we fed that powdered kind that looks like sugar—school feeds us sugar, the streets of this place feed us sugar—and we like it, we lap it up, we at the ready for it like it Vitamin D added, one hundred percent pure goodness meant to feed us stead of rot our insides out." This cocktail of damaged language and irreparably mixed metaphors is wonderfully representative of what you get with Milk Like Sugar, a play in need of a daily all-in-one vitamin supplement if ever there was one.

Milk Like Sugar
Through November 20
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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