Milk Like Sugar

Some years ago, playwright Kirsten Greenidge attended the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. The subject of the festival was, “How do we change the world?” Greenidge became inspired when someone suggested that if you really want to effect change within a community (and, by extension, in the world) you have to educate the girls. This struck a chord in Greenidge, and she decided to explore what happens when a community’s girls are not educated. And thus, we have Milk like Sugar, a terrific and unexpectedly moving new play at Playwrights Horizons.

While the exact setting of Milk like Sugar is undefined, we know we’re in a ghetto-ish, hard-knock urban environment. We meet Annie (Angela Lewis) while she and her two friends, Talisha, a.k.a. “T,” and Margie (Cherise Boothe and Nikiya Mathis, respectively), wait in a tattoo shop. They are waiting for Antwoine (LeRoy McClain) to arrive so he can tattoo Annie. It’s Annie’s 16th birthday, and while they wait, Annie does not hear from her mother, Myrna (Tonya Pinkins) but she does receive texts from Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a senior with whom she has been carrying on a minor flirtation.

We quickly learn that Margie is pregnant and soon the three girls are fantasizing aloud about how great it would be to be pregnant together, and to have babies to love them. T and Annie make a pact with Margie and agree to get pregnant, as well. This clearly sparks something inside of Annie because when Antwoine finally arrives, instead of getting a lady bug tattoo as originally planned, Annie insists on getting a flame. Throughout the course of the play, Annie will return to the tattoo shop to have Antwoine make the tattoo bigger and bigger.

See, Annie has this fire burning inside her, and everyone around her is fanning the flames. Annie is smarter than her girlfriends and her mother. She’s looking for something more than what’s expected of a young girl with her upbringing. She’s challenged by Malik, who is also trying to break free of the stereotypes, and she opens up a little to a new girl in town, Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), who hopes to inspire Annie through scripture.

Annie's fire continues to grow, and it consumes her as she fights for real milk, not milk like sugar. What’s “milk like sugar,” you ask? As Malik explains to Annie, they’re boxes of powdered milk, the contents of which look like sugar. Milk like sugar is the “milk” these underprivileged families can afford. Malik wants more. He doesn’t want to live up to and be held back by the milk like sugar. He wants to live beyond the expectation; he wants real milk. And so does Annie.

What truly struck me was that despite Annie being a very specific person is these very specific circumstances, her coming of age journey is universal. She’s looking for something she can do well. She’s looking for someone to love her. She’s looking to belong. She’s looking for more than the milk like sugar - more than what she can settle for. She wants something beyond the horizon and she’s struggling to burst out of the world she knows and make something of herself in the one she doesn’t. I think that struggle to not just belong but be loved and supported and to exceed expectations is something we can all relate to, and as Annie’s flames grew, I found myself - unexpectedly - in tears.

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, this production is executed with fierceness and a great commitment from the stellar cast. Boothe brought layers to T, so she wasn’t just a loud-mouth tough girl. Mallory-McCree’s Malik was sensitive but restless as Malik tries to help Annie, only to realize that if wants the real milk, he has to help himself first. And Lewis imbues Annie with passion and a courageous vulnerability that propel her on her journey.

This great new play is running at Playwrights Horizons’ intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater through November 20. Visit playwrightshorizons.com for more information and to purchase tickets.

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