Kirsten Greenidge’s title “Milk Like Sugar” refers to the powdered stuff, whose resemblance to the sweet stuff can make people forget they’re not drinking the wholesome stuff. It’s a neat metaphor for a pervasive confusion within society. When people can’t discriminate between what’s morally ersatz and what’s spiritually sound, they make dubious choices, whether it be an investment in overpriced designer sneakers or the babies-having-babies phenomenon at the heart of Greenidge’s remarkable new play. As dramatically rich as it is sociologically pointed, “Milk Like Sugar” is one of the works of art for which 2011 will be remembered.
Three high school sophomore BFFs yearn to become “lions,” but how? Margie (Nikiya Mathis) is already expecting, so how awesome would it be if they all got “P.G.” at the same time, to enjoy a joint shower where they could demand Coach diaper bags and the same stroller Beyonce uses?
The redoubtable Talisha (Cherise Boothe) should have no trouble squeezing “baby juice” out of her mysterious older gentleman friend, when he’s not treating her like a punching bag.
But Annie (Angela Lewis) is different: She’s got no fella, respects her schoolwork and totes big, if vague, dreams. As she gets a flame tattoo applied to her abdomen, her anguish over whether she should use that part of her body to ignite her life becomes the sizzling focus of our attention.
Those who seek to influence Annie – Greenidge is canny here – are all working on their own self-improvement plans. Malik (J. Mallory-McCree, excellent) is a college bound senior with an interest in astronomy; he sees stars when he sees her but doesn’t want to cross a taboo line. Tattoo guy Antwoine (LeRoy McClain) knows his art-school correspondence course is a joke to others, but it brings him joy nonetheless.
Joy is the stock in trade of charismatic Christian classmate Keera (a touching Adrienne C. Moore), whose evangelizing is an escape from her obesity and family problems.
And Tonya Pinkins adds another to her collection of electric character studies as Annie’s tough-as-leather mom, who scribbles in notebooks between Marlboros to bring her stories into the world, since her three kids have been such a bust.
Pinkins’ climactic clash with her stubborn daughter is the evening’s highlight, but confrontations both sweet and dire are skillfully shaped by helmer Rebecca Taichman. If she overuses Beyonce’s “Rule the World (Girls)” during the cast’s many scene changes, she makes sure even those shifts reveal and extend character relationships under Justin Townsend’s moody lighting.
The construction isn’t flawless. Talisha and Margie are too much of a kind (taking nothing away from the fine actresses who portray them), and aren’t granted a satisfactory wrap-up. The flame metaphor, which grows on Annie’s tummy while it takes over the stage, may be too self-conscious for comfort.
But Annie’s story, inspired by the 2008 report of a so-called pregnancy pact in Gloucester, Mass, is too real to ignore and too heartbreaking to forget. “What else have we got?” she cries, and her pain is palpable. When we’re seduced away from our best interests by consumerist values or blind loyalty to friends, life has a way of closing off options. Greenidge sadly and plausibly places her characters – both figuratively and literally, thanks to designer Mimi Lien – up against the wall.
The production transfers to Gotham co-producer Playwrights Horizons in mid-October.