“Milk Like Sugar” Shuns Broad Strokes in Favor of Difficult Nuance

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
Written by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara

Through Feb. 27, 2016
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) All the individual ingredients of a melodrama are here. Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) and her sassy, “bad girl” teenage friends Talisha (Shazi Raja) and Margie (Carolina Sanchez), flirt with boys based on their brand of cell phone, drink, get tattoos, and have recently made a pact to all get pregnant within a week so they can raise their children together. I was nervous Milk Like Sugar would be a morality play, a story of “teen girl must do x or else she’ll fall under the sway of y!” I should have known better. Playwright Kirsten Greenidge already blew me away with Luck of the Irish and her hand here is similarly deft.

Milk Like Sugar lifts its pregnancy plot line from the “pregnancy pact” media blitz in 2008. The deeply exaggerated events and the ensuing public moral panic has already been an inspiration for a creepy Lifetime original movie, “The Pregnancy Pact” (2010). I worried deeply about the perspective Greenidge would take.

But Milk Like Sugar is a nuanced portrait of poverty, sometimes sad but with its moments of lightness. Carmichael’s character may be indulging in late night illegal activities with friends, but she’s enormously naïve. Her decisions aren’t due to apathy and blind materialism but like well-meaning teachers that cycle out of her school within a year and a weak family support system. Her mother, Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander), can’t even remember to wish her a happy birthday.

The promise Talisha and Margie extract from Annie is stupid, yes. They think taking care of a baby would be a lot like having a doll to dress up, that a baby shower is a chance for free cake and gifts. This view of family, friendship, and being “lionesses” that raise their children together, though, is strangely innocent. Greenidge uses the “pregnancy pact” idea as a springboard to talk about Annie’s growing awareness of her own opportunities and challenges.

The details of this world are deeply humane. Everyone has something they believe in, a moment is humor, and a goal that drives them forward. Keera (Shanae Burch) is a fellow high school student and enthusiastic Conservative Christian with a love of purity balls. Annie’s romantic interest, Malik (Marc Pierre), is obsessed with astronomy and attempts to woo her with stargazing and a telescope. Even Myrna entertains daydreams of being a writer. Greenidge gives her characters soliloquies on tattoos, love, and freedom from economic burden. This isn’t quite an “issue” play, or if it is, it’s one that puts a personal, grounded face on the many issues on which it touches.

Milk Like Sugar is a triumphant look at the circular nature of poverty and the way it passes itself on from one generation to the next. It’s honest, lets its characters have fun, and is open about the fact there are no easy solutions. I’ll admit, some of Annie, Malik, and the teenage characters’ slang feel awkward at the beginning of the play, but their interactions are convincing and believably intimate. Much like the play itself, it finds truth whatever its source material.

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