Milk Like Sugar from Mosaic Theater Company (review)
At the top of Milk Like Sugar, three young teens enter, a blast of energy and music, wild rhythms jerking through their bodies in fits, almost uncontrollably, laughing, jiving each other, finishing each other’s barely completed sentences mid-stream.
Inspired by stories of group teen pregnancy pacts and watching waves of girls get caught up and sucked into undertow of teen-mother cycles, playwright Greenidge delves into the inner lives and worlds of girls on the brink of self-discovery. Before they can try to find meaning and purpose in life, and act accordingly, they seek the comfort they never had, and in this play hold each other accountable to get it, no matter what.
Annie, Margie and tough-girl Talisha are a threesome, down to agreeing to get tattoos as a symbol of solidarity. The other major thing they promise to do is get pregnant so they can share fun baby showers and have cuddly bundles who will love them unconditionally. This is the premise of Milk Like Sugar,, a reference to federally subsidized powered milk that sits on a shelf. The energetic Obie winning script by Kirsten Greenidge raises questions about life’s circumstances, reality, and choices to make us wonder to what extent we’re really in control of our own destiny.
Kashayna Johnson leads the pack of talented performers as Annie, in a thoughtful rendition of a youngster deliberating her life directions, contemplating choices and trying to flesh out her own reality. Johnson has a natural grace as she portrays Annie’s total commitment to the sisterhood from the very beginning with bodacious moves and a swagger. But she slowly allows herself to listen to other possible options and lets bits of light seep into the mire of darkness, lackluster attentiveness and broken promises. It’s a lovely manifestation to watch the delicate transition with a sweet script that breathes life into lifeless statistics about teenage pregnancy.
Ghislaine “Gigi” Dwarka as Margie is a strong and deliberate force making the initial leap into the world of motherhood despite the realities. The girls have a fixation that cute babies will coo and laugh and bring fun-loving joy, hugs and kisses into their lives. The focus on the latest cell phones and designer strollers anticipated as baby shower gifts shows how little reality has seeped in. It’s like they’re on another planet and totally oblivious to the hardships of single motherhood despite their surroundings.
Classically trained Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Talisha can dish the dirt on the street side as easily as she can the Bard’s English, like yo’ girl, right? Talisha runs the roost with razor sharp assaults with B-words and explosive expletives of verbal smack downs knowing that her boom-boom body moves will get the rest of what she wants. Usually.
The youngest in the troop is the outsider Keera played winningly by Tyasia Velines, wearing homegrown attire and spouting platitudes of self-determination. She describes vivid scenes about her family’s nightly dinner routine and fun game nights, and her preference for satin slippers instead of the latest high-tops, but lives a life full of fractured fairy tales. Velines does a wonderful job as the young churchy girl who submits to being bullied by Talisha into writing her term papers, but takes it all in stride and actually doesn’t seem to mind. She thrusts herself into the conversations with a ready smile, no matter what the consequences – anything is better than not being seen or heard, even a rebuke.
Annie has targeted Malik, a studious fellow nicely played by Vaughn Ryan Midder to “get the job done” but he balks at her entreaty to flip it out and just do it. Rather than looking down at doing the dirty, he gets her to look up at the sky and constellations, and even brings a telescope to share the stars with her. She balks, and the evening disintegrates in an explosive parting, but some of the star gazing interest has seeped into her, almost without her knowing. And then there’s Jeremy Keith Hunter as Antwoine who brings a centered no nonsense presence to the gabby prancing trio as tattoo artist in training. Antwoine finds his own solace in his artwork in creating worlds of beauty on body parts while still practicing on oranges.
Deidre LaWan Starnes delivers a master class performance, as Annie’s frustrated Mom Myrna, who envisions herself as a writer with stories to tell although she will not admit to herself she can barely read complete sentences. The quiet mother and daughter scenes layer possibilities of tenderness between the two despite the mindless, misguided and even willful acts of neglect. Annie’s life could pivot towards college prep with some nudging and coaching, if she could just dream and reach for the stars. But she doesn’t know how and she doesn’t have a safe place to land if she tried to fly.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson delves into the characters’ interior journeys while keeping the outward movement popping fresh and costumer Marci Rodgers assures an edgy urban flair.
In truly committed sharing, Mosaic is offering nearly a dozen talk backs including sessions on empowering mentoring, dreaming of the future and race and identity. Mosaic has also taken its expanded Accessibility Initiative to heart and ensures a fully accessible experience to the Deaf community by incorporating open captioning for every performance. The set by Luciana Stecconi is cleverly designed with just enough room at the top of the two-story tenement building for the unobtrusive text projections, by Gregory Towle.
This remarkable story works on so many levels and is awash in poetry, life rhythms, music (by the rock steady sound designer David Lamont Wilson), hopes, and yes, dreams deferred. Through it all, though, as the characters’ lives unfold, bend and twist, glimpses of strength and tenacity remain in their depths, sprinkled with tiny specks of hope.