‘Milk Like Sugar’ Mixes Hope, Despair With Laughter (4.5 Stars)

 

by Mike Hoban

 

Milk Like Sugar’ – Written by Kirsten Greenidge; Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Design by M.L. Dogg. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts at 527 Tremont St., Boston through Feb. 27


Robert Green Ingersoll once said that “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.” And while we are getting to see the wisdom of that statement firsthand in our current political climate, one could make the argument that it is also a thousand times worse to have neither. Misinformation – whether it comes from a deliberate propaganda machine or is borne of ignorance fueled by poverty – takes away one’s ability to make realistic decisions about life. Take those awful decision-making skills and combine them with the hopelessness that comes with growing up in an environment where things like going to college seem as unrealistic as living on the moon, and you’ve got a recipe for an ongoing generational cycle of poverty and despair.

Kirsten Greenidge brilliantly captures that deadly combo in her surprisingly hopeful (and Obie Award-winning) drama Milk Like Sugar, now playing at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. The play centers around the lives of three teenage girls, who absent any real goals in life, decide to all get pregnant at the same time. But Greenidge doesn’t give us some pop-psych motivation for the girl’s plan – it isn’t so that they can be loved unconditionally by the baby or need someone to care for in their lives – it’s all about the bling.

So when Margie, who is already eight weeks pregnant, tells her friends Annie and Talisha the good news that babies mean baby showers which means a baby register where people are obligated to buy what you ask for, the girls are all in. “Maybe you and me should hit ourselves up with some baby juice, like Margie here,” Annie says to Talisha. But instead of thinking the plan all the way through, the girls start an animated discussion of all the designer baby accessories they’ll be receiving if they get pregnant, rather than the reality of actually raising a child. Margie nails this mindset with the line, “A Coach diaper bag is what I need to make this baby look good enough to be seen with me.”

What’s more disturbing about this line of conversation is that these girls aren’t stupid. While Margie may not be any threat to win a prize at a science fair, Annie and the razor-tonged Talisha reveal themselves to be very bright – although grossly misinformed – young women. It is in some ways reminiscent of the low points of the Republican debates – with smart people talking such nonsense that it leaves you just shaking your head – or laughing out loud. Greenidge has such a terrific ear for the urban teen dialogue (Annie and Talisha are presumably African-American, Margie is Latina), that the scenes featuring just the girls play like a Saturday Night Live sketch – until you remember that it’s not a comedy.

Luckily for Annie, the ridiculousness of the pregnancy pact begins to become obvious through a series of encounters involving her intended baby daddy, a nerdy new kid at school, and her own mother, who gave birth to her as a young teen. And more importantly, those scenes begin to give rise to the idea that there may be other possibilities instead of a dead-end life. The seeds of change begin to be sown when she meets senior Malik (she and her friends are sophomores), who wisely rebuffs Annie when she tries to seduce him. He encourages her to stop settling for less and instead tells her how he plans to break free of the neighborhood by going to college. Later, she meets up with Keera, a fish-out-of-water Christian girl who Talisha has bullied into writing her school papers for her. Keera paints an idyllic picture of her family life (complete with family sit down meals and game nights) which appeals to Annie, and even gets her to listen to gospel music with her rather than the Top 40 hip hop she’s used to.

But the most sobering moments for Annie comes through her interactions with her chain-smoking mother, who didn’t even bother to call her on her birthday. When Annie tells her that she’s thinking of having a baby, punctuating the confession with, "Babies ain't like real work," Mom sets her straight with the literal and figurative diaper-changing realities of motherhood. If these combined scenes sound like a convenient After-School Special plotline, fear not, there’s a lot more to this work than a simple synopsis can possibly convey.

It’s also not a downer, thanks to M. Bevin O’Gara’s lively direction. The play opens with the girls dancing and goofing around, having innocent fun as they rate boys based on what type of cell phones they own, and that energy level is sustained throughout the play with a pretty cool score during scene changes. On the night I attended, people applauded at the end of scenes, much like a musical. The production also benefits from believable performances by the four teen girls. Jasmine Carmichael embodies an intellectual curiosity combined with a genuine sweetness in her performance as Annie, and Carolina Sanchez is effective as Margie, the epitome of consumer culture gone wild. Shazi Raja is intense as Talisha, whose model-pretty looks and low self-esteem set her up as prey for older men, and she treats everyone around her like underlings (with the exception of her violent boyfriend), ready with venom for anyone who challenges her. And Shanae Burch gives a layered performance as the outwardly sunny Keera. Ramona Lisa Alexander is also outstanding as the self-absorbed mother Myrna.

Those of us who grew up on government cheese and powdered milk (which the title refers to) will recognize these characters in some form, and those who haven’t will get a realistic view of the sense of hopelessness that comes from the lack of education and working class poverty. It’s a thought-provoking experience, but it’s a lot of fun as well. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/milk-like-sugar/