Midway through Kirsten Greenidge’s sweet-natured, warmly compassionate Milk Like Sugar (Playwrights Horizons), its teenage heroine, Annie (Angela Lewis), does something startlingly cruel and, one would think, unforgivable. The shock signals both the breadth and the clarity of Greenidge’s dramatic focus: She indicts nobody, but she isn’t going to let anybody off the hook either. Among the later shocks that resonate with this one is a speech of even more startling cruelty, delivered to Annie by her mother, Myrna (Tonya Pinkins). For good or for ill, the world is the way it is; if you think it needs changing, to find the means of change is your task, not the playwright’s. “For the poet,” said Sir Philip Sidney, “he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” It could be the credo for Greenidge’s remarkable play.
Milk Like Sugar‘s remarkable features include its locale, an urban, African-American subworld that displays, for once, neither the brutalizing clichés of a poverty-stricken ghetto nor the discomfiting artificiality of a talented-tenth safe haven. Instead, Greenidge populates her story with a sampling of the innumerable young people caught between those extremes. Not starving but also not rich, her characters all hunger for something else. Annie and her two best friends, sharp-tongued Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and placidly sentimental Margie (Nikiya Mathis), see life’s higher values as vested in fancy brand-name consumer goods. Antwoine (LeRoy McClain), the apprentice tattooist Annie befriends, has visions of artistic achievement; Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), her chosen boyfriend, dreams of scientific achievement. Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), odd girl out at Annie’s high school, looks for solace in religion.
Each of these characters, including Myrna and Annie herself, is partly in the grip of a delusion. A lot of delusions get shown up in the course of the brief, taut evening; Greenidge’s tone is always tender—she clearly loves and cares for these people—but its overtones resound with heartfelt bitterness. Even though their delusions are rarely more than partial, and they all maintain some sense of reality underneath, still, while we watch, the characters increasingly find themselves trapped or wrecked by their delusions. Few escape, and without making too big a fuss over the point, Greenidge shows us clearly why: The energy needed to survive sucks up most of their sense of reality, leaving next to no space for larger contemplation. When you’re boxed in, it’s not so easy to think outside the box.
Annie and her two gal pals box themselves in by failing to understand, when they make an unexpected and disturbing pact at the top of the play, how complex and time-consuming its consequences will be. For all the relative stability and material comfort of their lives, they function in an eerie isolation. The social fabric surrounding them has been frayed so thin that they lack a strong awareness of what life will entail as they grow up. With knowing irony, Greenidge provides Annie with a two-parent home, where both adults work hard to support their kids; the circumstances make it seem almost worse than the single-parent “welfare mother” model that sociologists have pontificated about since the days of Glazer and Moynihan.
Rebecca Taichman’s production, with a cool blend of daring and sensitivity, underscores the script’s terrifying sense of anomie. Mimi Lien’s set almost literally traps the characters in a box, its edges often outlined in red fluorescents. Under Justin Townsend’s mistily shifting lights, Taichman has characters drift in isolation through the scene changes, often appearing before the previous scene ends, as if they were all ghosts haunting one another’s recollections. Within the scenes, Toni-Leslie James’s bold, outrageous costume choices give each character strong definition: The pants Boothe wears in the opening scene tell you Talisha’s whole story in a single garment.
Taichman makes few slips; one rare lapse is a stylized representation of intercourse that looks hokey and over-explicit in the eerily evocative context otherwise so well sustained. Sustained, too, is the uniformly high quality of her cast’s performance. This is virtually flawless acting. Pinkins’s fierce energy blazes brightest, and Lewis—sweet, shy, tremulously yet spunkily assertive—spreads a radiance of a kind our theater has lacked for far too long.