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Critics Are Raving About MILK LIKE SUGAR! - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

Critics Are Raving About MILK LIKE SUGAR!

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Theater review: ‘Milk Like Sugar’ at the La Jolla Playhouse

September 8, 2011 | 12:44 pm

Photo: Angela Lewis, left, Nikiya Mathis and Cherise Boothe. Credit: Craig Schwartz.

The title of “Milk Like Sugar” refers to the powdered variety purchased by food-stamp recipients, but its symbolic aspects reach well beyond socioeconomic realities. So does Kirsten Greenidge’s trenchant seriocomic look at a pregnancy pact among three African American teens in its absorbing La Jolla Playhouse production.

The play opens in a tattoo parlor, where 16-year-old Annie (Angela Lewis, a find) readies for her first ink, a birthday gift from her best friends. She wants a ladybug — her nickname and another of Greenidge’s well chosen metaphors — but defensively aggressive Talisha (fiercely committed Cherise Boothe) and bubbly, pregnant Margie (appealing Nikiya Mathis) are less enthusiastic.

Their raw-tinged, hilariously acute colloquy soon reveals the narrative engine: to have unconditional love in their seemingly predetermined, “sexting”-dominated lives, Talisha and Annie will also get pregnant, so that they can enter the baby registry together.

Except that preternaturally bright Annie, despite her attraction to astronomy-minded Malik (fine-tuned J. Mallory-McCree), is ambivalent. One reason is tattoo artist Antwoine (charismatic LeRoy McClain); another is born-again would-be friend Keera (imposing Adrienne C. Moore). Yet the key complication is Myrna (Tonya Pinkins, vivid as ever), Annie’s bone-weary, overbearing mother.

Thus, “Milk Like Sugar” spins out a parable as potently universal as it is specifically topical.

Greenidge, a writer of rare lyricism and dramatic punch, wields her exceptional gifts to lift “Milk Like Sugar” beyond the “ABC Afterschool Special” traps its premise might suggest. The poetic flights and ‘hood idiom carry a heightened authenticity and grace, and the plot combustions alternately rock and hush the house.Credit director Rebecca Taichman, who stages “Milk” with the propulsion of a musical while never losing the viscera at its heart — even the scene transitions carry dramatic content. The elegantly stark décor features scenic designer Mimi Lien’s neon-banded concrete wall, which moves laterally forward and backward, a visual simile for the world that suffocates its characters’ dreams, with Justin Townsend’s side-dominated lighting, Toni Leslie James’ savvy costumes and Andre Pluess’ atmospheric sound all assets.And the cast is marvelous, repeatedly avoiding clichés, with Lewis and Pinkins devastating at their climactic face-off. The play isn’t quite perfect yet — both Keera and Antwoine could stand more Act 1 development to heighten their Act 2 outcomes; some similes are more on-the-nose than necessary. These are decorative quibbles, because “Milk Like Sugar” truthfully balances street with sweet, to entertaining, illuminating and nourishing effect, and that makes it a must-see.
— David C. Nichols,
from La Jolla“Milk Like Sugar,” La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $41 to $74. (858) 550-1010 or Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Milk Like Sugar

(La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA; 384 seats; $69 top)

By Bob Verini
A La Jolla Playhouse presentation, in association with Playwrights Horizons and Women’s Project Productions, of a play in two acts by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Rebecca Taichman.
Talisha – Cherise Boothe
Annie – Angela Lewis
Margie – Nikiya Mathis
Antwoine – LeRoy McClain
Malik – J. Mallory-McCree
Keera – Adrienne C. Moore
Myrna – Tonya Pinkins

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.

Sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Justin Townsend; composition and sound, Andre Pluess. Opened Sept. 7, 2011. Reviewed Sept. 10. Runs through Sept. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Contact the Variety newsroom at


Play review: Milk Like Sugar – A Stirring Story of Underloved Teens

La Jolla Playhouse world premiere gets at the impulses behind pregnancy pact

Written by James Hebert

Nikiya Mathis, Cherise Boothe, Angela Lewis, and LeRoy McClain (left to right) in La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere production of "Milk Like Sugar." — Craig Schwartz

For the brand-obsessed teen girls in Kirsten Greenidge’s powerful play “Milk Like Sugar,” having a baby seems a shot at a one-of-a-kind status symbol, like being pregnant with a Prada bag.

But these aren’t rich kids living luxe designer lives. They’re urban black girls from barely-making-it families, and in their minds, life’s options don’t seem to extend much beyond getting better features on the phones they finger compulsively like rosaries.

In Greenidge’s raw (and at times cuttingly funny) piece, which just opened its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, three of the girls — Annie (Angela Lewis), Margie (Nikiya Mathis) and Talisha (Cherise Boothe) — make a vow to have babies at the same time. They’re just 16, but it’s clear the idea speaks to the void they try to salve with constant chatter of what they’d like to buy.

“Little baby gonna love us all for us and we gonna do everything the right way for them,” as Annie puts it in one piercingly honest moment.

The trio’s desire to acquire can seem mindless at times, even though it’s an understandable response to a deep-seated despair over economic and emotional deprivation. Yet Greenidge, whose Playhouse-commissioned work was inspired partly by a news story of a teen-age pregnancy pact in her home state of Massachusetts, doesn’t let the audience off the hook, either.

At one point, Annie peers through a telescope owned by Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a driven kid who uses it to gaze dreamily at the stars and jealously at passing jetliners bearing people whom he imagines lead impossibly privileged lives.

Before directing the instrument toward the heavens, Annie points it straight at the audience, scanning slowly across the rows.

The kind of spiritual smog created by the possession-obsessed culture that surrounds these characters is conveyed beautifully by the actors playing the three girls in director Rebecca Taichman’s high-impact production. (It’s also captured in Greenidge’s close attention to details of culture and speech. For example, the girls swig Alize, a fruit-flavored booze exalted by rap stars; Annie and Co. call it “water.”)

Lewis, whose character is at the center of the story, makes clear that Annie is more tentative and tender than her friends. She yearns for any kind of warmth and connection, falling in at one point with an outsider named Keera (an affecting and ultimately heartbreaking Adrienne C. Moore), who appears to have an idyllic family life.

As for Annie’s family life: About all we need to know is conveyed in the impassive, implacable face of Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award-winning performer (“Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Caroline or Change”), who turns in a brittle and brutal and entirely mesmerizing performance as Annie’s mom, Myrna.

Cigarette dangling contemptuously from her lip, Myrna — who helps support the family by cleaning offices (Annie’s father is never seen) — is a study in dreams deferred if not dashed, her buried frustrations stoking emotional neglect of her daughter. When the two finally have it out in the second act, the tone is vicious and volcanic.

The perfectly quirky Mathis plays Margie as a girl almost numbed by the hum of commercialism; she’s a fashion plate (the costumes by Toni-Leslie James are eye-popping all around) who dreams of a boy with a touch-screen phone. She’s already pregnant as the play begins.

And the hugely talented Boothe’s Talisha (or “T”) is fiery and seemingly self-possessed, though she ultimately proves more vulnerable than the rest.

Mallory-McCree brings a fierce but wounded pride as Malik, and LeRoy McClain is a humane and sympathetic figure as the tattoo artist Antwoine. Mimi Lien’s set design backs the action with a moving wall that suggests these characters’ circumscribed world; Andre Pluess’ sound design offers both pop-rap candy and ominous thrums.

Some elements of the script can feel a little forced — the recurring image of a ladybug, for one. And for a character who proves to have such misgivings, it’s a surprise that Annie is the one to suggest the pregnancy pact so quickly.

But the tough truths and agonized laughs of “Milk Like Sugar” feel authentic and visceral, and like nothing you’ll ever see in a glossy magazine.


“Milk Like Sugar”

La Jolla Playhouse

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 25.

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD campus

Tickets: $35-$69

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: La Jolla Playhouse