Mosaic theater's "Milk Like Sugar" review: Impressive cast, compelling production
How refreshing a sight. Two African-American youths play a love scene on a balcony — not as a reimagined Romeo and Juliet, but expressing their distinct discomfort in being young, poor, smart and stuck in modern-day America. It’s an exhilarating moment in Mosaic Theater Company’s compelling production of the Obie-winning Milk Like Sugar. Even if Luciana Stecconi’s evocative if busy set doesn’t make it clear whether would-be teen lovers Annie and Malik are standing on a balcony of his building, a fire escape or construction scaffolding, the scene still takes flight.
Leading an impressive cast, Kashayna Johnson plays Annie, a bright, inquisitive 16-year old sharing a cramped inner-city apartment with her frazzled mom, Myrna (Deidra LaWan Starnes), a cleaning woman who harbors dreams of trading her mop for a Mac and working behind a desk. Annie’s dad and two brothers live in the apartment as well, but we never see them at home. Meanwhile, Annie’s friends Talisha (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and Margie (Ghislaine “Gigi” Dwarka), fellow sophomores in her high school class, harbor their own big dreams of a baller life beyond boring classes and subpar smartphones. As Margie gushes, in their swagged-out future her man will have a touchscreen phone.
Margie has to believe in something, likely because she’s scared now that she’s completed stage one of her plan for a better life: she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby. Fueled by shared fantasies of lavish, Super Sweet 16-style baby showers and the precious notion that “babies ain’t like real work,” Margie and Talisha pressure Annie into making a pact that they’ll all get pregnant before the school year is out. Then they’ll sit back and luxuriate in the incoming flow of Coach diaper bags and Gucci baby clothes. Growing up deprived in the culture of celebrity teen moms has led the girls to envision new motherhood as the cushiest ride in all of consumerism. As far as they’re concerned, it’s got to be better than the nothing they feel they have now.
The three talented young actresses at the heart of this production share a winning rapport, whether teasing each other mercilessly or sticking up for one another’s dignity in the face of cruel circumstances. Annie, Margie and Talisha first hit the stage dancing their latest favorite choreographed routine, and immediately Johnson, Dwarka and Wilson connect with the audience, radiating a warmth that fills the house. Wilson especially nails the comic timing of playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s slang-laced lingo, lending the rudely impatient Talisha an air of supreme self-confidence that masks a wealth of hurt. As Annie, the appealing Johnson is onstage for every scene, admirably carrying the weight of the story as well as the physical demands of director Jennifer L. Nelson’s energetic staging.
Restless Annie darts between home, school and a local tattoo spot where she meets Antwoine (Jeremy Keith Hunter), the laidback artist who will create her birthday tattoo, a dazzling red flame. Antwoine might be nice, but he’s not the potential baby-daddy Annie’s friends are pushing for her. That would be sensitive, college-bound senior Malik (Vaughn Ryan Midder, effortlessly likable if not always credible). With Malik, momentarily free of the intense peer pressure applied by her friends, Annie discovers true romance and a concept of purpose. Malik wants an education and his own life, and, as much as he likes Annie, tells her he has no intention of becoming a father before he can graduate high school and escape to college. An amateur astronomer, he paints Annie a vivid picture of a pathway forward and upward, if she can just discover and cultivate whatever talent makes her special.
He inspires Annie to consider her options differently, and at first, with this newfound clarity, she can see only her disadvantages. She’s grown weary of powdered milk being the best her family can afford. She wants more. “What does that mean? More?” Myrna asks bitterly. Deidra LaWan Starnes is stunning throughout as a mother not really suited to mentor her daughter towards a place she feels she can’t ever reach herself. She’s charming, funny and, at times, heartbreaking, daring to make Myrna not the wind beneath her daughter’s wings but the razor edge that’ll clip those wings if the girl’s not careful.
Another standout performance comes courtesy of Tyasia Velines as Keera, the new girl in school, bookish and shy but uninhibited about expressing her boundless joy in loving God and living her religion. Keera complicates matters for Annie by imploring her to develop a sense of self informed by the Word, not by the streets. Velines manages to keep pious, judgmental Keera amiably perky instead of preachy, and in turn delivers a darned persuasive message about goodness. How Annie responds to that message is key to her fate, and integral to this powerful, universal story about kids feeling the overwhelming pressure of coming of age in a world they fear won’t provide opportunities to match their ambitions.