Monday, November 28, 2011

"Milk Like Sugar" - A powerful and painful look at inner city-life

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Ari Mintz

Kirsten Greenidge has written a harrowing tale of teenage angst, peer pressure and the desperate need to belong in her riveting, and oftentimes painful to watch Milk Like Sugar, presented by Playwrights Horizons at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

In an inner-city neighborhood, teenagers Annie (Angela Lewis), Margie (Nikiya Mathis), and Talisha (Cherise Boothe) pass the time talking about boys and comparing the latest cell phones and iPads. One night at a tattoo parlor, where they go after hours and are waited on by aspiring artist Antwoine (LeRoy McClain), Margie, who is several weeks pregnant, suggests Annie and Talisha also get themselves with child so all three can have their children together, and also all have something cute and cuddly to love. While Talisha, who is dating an older man, is quick to agree, Annie hesitates at first, but soon succumbs to the urging of her friends.

However Annie's choice of daddy material, Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a high school senior whom she has a crush on (he's about two years older than her), is not willing to be the father. Busily taking care of his sick mother and studying hard for college, Malik has no plans to become a teenage dad. Malik instead is determined to be one of the people in the airplanes he sees overhead, instead of being stuck on the ground as the people above look down on him.

It's not long before Annie begins to wonder if getting pregnant is actually the best choice she can make. Her confusion only intensifies when she finds herself befriending Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), a recent transfer student who has a strong affiliation with God and who comes from a home where family is everything and eating evening meals together is a common, rather than a rare occurrence. 

Annie's home life however, is completely the opposite. Myrna (Tonya Pinkins) her embittered mother, continually blames Annie for the way her own life has turned out. Annie the being the result of an unplanned pregnancy when she herself was a teenager. Myrna also has no patience for Keera's "family values" (i.e. game night) that Annie tries to introduce into her home. Add to this Margie and Talisha's continual pressure for Annie to get with the "pregnancy program" and it's not long before Annie's opportunities to try to figure things out start shrinking by the minute.

With Milk Like Sugar Greenidge paints a bleak picture of inner-city life; and where the choice to change means sacrificing everything you're familiar with (such as when Malik must make a decision regarding his future) in order to do so. Hand-in-hand with this is the overall defeatist attitude present, one which grows stronger as the play progresses. Whether it's Talisha making excuses for an abusive boyfriend, or Antwoine laughing dismissively when Annie suggests he might actually have a future as an artist, it becomes quickly apparent that these are all emotionally spent souls who have grown up too fast, with their childhood and innocene long since stolen away.

Another telling point is the unrealistic pipe dreams Margie extols. Her comments about how wonderful it will be to have a child; along with Annie, Margie and Talisha's laughing and comparing the different types of expensive baby strollers they would buy to show off their kids, shows how unprepared they are to take on this responsibility and is a scathing comment by the playwright of the attitudes of some inner-city teenagers and their lack of parental supervision.

Casting is superb throughout. Lewis is excellent as Annie, a high school sophomore who never really thought about her future until now and very quickly realizes she doesn't like what she sees. One can feel her pain, helplessness and finally sheer desperation as she starts to feel herself being smothered by her surroundings before she's even had a chance to live.

Mathis is both good and aggravating (deliberately so) as Margie, the most vapid of the bunch. Blissfully happy being pregnant, and loving being part of the clique with Annie and Talisha, she ultimately gets a rude awakening when she least expects it. Boothe proves a revelation as Talisha, initially the most overbearing of the group but by the end of the play she's revealed to be perhaps the most vulnerable of all, tearfully proclaiming at one point "I don't want to be alone." Pinkins makes an imposing figure as Myrna, a woman habitually blaming other people for her misfortunes while basically neglecting her own personal responsibility in the situation.

Moore does very well as Keera, a sort of social outcast who offers Annie a look at way of life quite different from her own. A mini-dance sequence involving the two characters is very telling. Yet while Keera truly believes in her spiritual path, she also carries her own dark family secrets, one which threaten to envelop Annie when she is at her most vulnerable.

Mallory-McCree is nicely calming as Malik, a young man who has plans beyond the local neighborhood and who passionately tries to impart those dreams to Annie. His soliloquies of watching the planes and stars is quite touching and one can feel and understand his fierce desire to make a change for himself.

Rebecca Taichman's direction is strong, keeping the play moving relentlessly to it's inexorable conclusion, while continuing to raise the emotional tension of the story until everything is at the boiling point and quite ready to explode.

Milk Like Sugar (the title referring to powered milk), is a haunting play about failed lives, ones that have been lost almost before they ever had a chance to begin. Both message-laden and soul-destroying, the play is a painful lesson about how important choices can be in life, and how squandering even one can mean an end for them all.

Milk Like Sugar
Featuring Cherise Boothe (Talisha), Angela Lewis (Annie), Nikiya Mathis (Margie), LeRoy McClain (Antwoine), J. Mallory-McCree (Malik), Adrienne C. Moore (Keera), Tonya Pinkins (Myrna)

Written by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Rebecca Taichman 
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music and Sound Design: Andre Pluess
Production Manager: Christopher Boll
Production Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Assistant Stage Manager: Allison Cottrell

Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre

416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 40 minutes no intermission
Closed: November 27, 2011

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