OnStage Connecticut Critic
Although today it often sounds stuffy and stilted, William Shakespeare took the vernacular of his day and turned it into poetry. From bawdy jokes to ruminations on the meaning of life, the way he strung together words elevated them from common-place to works of art. Although there is nary a ‘thou’ or ‘betwixt’ in Kirsten Greenidge’s contemporary drama “Milk Like Sugar,” she takes the same careful approach in crafting dialogue. Tempo, alliteration, consonant sound, even dare I say meter (although not iambic) is incredibly important to Ms. Greenidge who takes a lyrical, rhythmic approach in her slang-driven writing. You see, not a note is sung in “Milk” but it contains scenes and exchanges that are no less musical than “Hamilton.” Is it fitting, then, that director Jenny Nelson choose “My Shot” to feature in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production as Annie’s ringtone. She’s a 16-year-old from an unnamed city who is molded by the oppressive American culture she lives in and, yes, appears quite young, scrappy and hungry.
When we first meet Annie (Malia West), she’s waiting to get a tattoo with her high-school friends Talisha and Margie. At first they seem like your typical teenage girls. They trade jokes and jabs with lightening speed, chat about boys and often seem glued to their bedazzled, outdated flip phones. But before the tattoo artist (an understated Eric Clinton) can come in, Margie reveals she’s pregnant. It seems to be a windfall for the sweetly air-headed teen (Betzabeth Castro). She’ll get out of sophomore year early and hopefully be showered with baby gifts like Coach diaper bags and fancy strollers. If acid-tongued tough girl Talisha (Sharece M. Sallem) understands the reality of teenage motherhood better – the diapers, the bills, the sleepless nights – she doesn’t offer much opposition. In fact, she hatches a plan: all three friends should get pregnant at the same time.
It’s Annie who is most unsure about the pact. She’s clearly more thoughtful than her friends and has hopes of a better life for herself, even if she doesn’t know how to achieve it. Perhaps that’s due to living with her uneducated, alcoholic mother (Tamika Pettway) who was herself a single, teenage mom and now makes a living cleaning office cubicles. But Talisha’s Faustian deal holds some kind of pull for Annie, so much so she agrees to be set up on a date with Malik (Cantrell Cheeks II), a sweet, academically-minded senior who spends his nights peering through a pawned telescope at the constellations.
While it’s true that Ms. Greenidge’s dialogue hums with vitality, wit and urban poetry, it’s in service of a story that is equal parts frustrating and satisfying. The numerous clichés and heavy-handed metaphors (like the star-gazing kid from the ghetto) seem to obscure the point she is trying to make. Even If I was entertained and moved by much of “Milk” (which I was), I left unsure what Ms. Greenidge was trying to add to the already crowded cannon of work about the lack of education, opportunities and upward-mobility of inner-city, Black communities. It also doesn’t help matters that the episodic script is made even more fragmented by far too many long and awkward scene changes, which often kill the play’s energy and flow.
Yet when David Sepulveda’s colorful, simple set is in place, the cast is able to shine and overcome many of the play’s flaws. West, who did great work in Collective Consciousness’ two-hander “The Mountaintop,” is just fantastic here – authentic, vibrant and youthful. It is rare to see a performer who is so instantly likable and magnetic on stage. One of the last times I felt that way about an unknown actor was seeing Adepero Oduye at Long Wharf Theatre in 2008. Since then, Oduye has performed on Broadway and in films (like the terrific “Pariah” and Oscar-winning “12 Years A Slave”), exhibiting many of the stand-out qualities West also possesses.
Castro plays pregnant Margie with warmth and deft-comic timing while Cheeks is endearing nerdy. In a compelling performance, Pettway breathes life into Annie’s downtrodden mother Myrna who still harbors a dream of writing short stories. While Sallem superbly connects with the more traumatic part of Talisha’s life in a touching monologue, her gum-chewing, insult-hurling persona often comes off as a touch too forced and sitcom-y. Outside of West, though, the greatest surprise in “Milk Like Sugar” came in the form of high school senior Rashae Reeves who plays Keera, a bullied, soft-spoken Born Again Christian classmate of Annie’s. She delivers a beautifully-rendered, complex portrait of a girl who oozes adolescent awkwardness and the deep, painful longing to belong in a world just outside her grasp. It’s a testament to Reeves, making her professional debut, that Keera who only appears in a few scenes became one of the most compelling and pivotal characters in CCT’s “Milk Like Sugar.”
All of this is crisply directed by Jenny Nelson, who brings a conductor’s ear when it comes to the dialogue and a keen eye for staging. This is the third Collective Consciousness show I’ve seen since the new year and, each time I visit their New Haven black box space I come away very impressed. What they may lack in resources is made up tenfold by their commitment to producing fresh and politically charged plays (which often highlight performers of color), casting terrific professional and amateur actors and using their intimate space to create a real bond between artist and audience. Those strengths are expertly employed in “Milk Like Honey” an uneven play that takes a truly talented group such as this to really make it sing.
“Milk Like Sugar” runs through April 9 in New Haven, CT. For more information and to get tickets, visit: www.socialchangetheatre.org. To learn more about Collective Consciousness, read our interview with artistic director Dexter Singleton here: http://bit.ly/2j86xtn. Photo: Thomas Breen