Jasmine Carmichael and Shanae Burch in Milk Like Sugar, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Jasmine Carmichael and Shanae Burch in Milk Like Sugar, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, at the Huntington Theatre Company.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

The Huntington Theatre Company's production of Kirsten Greenidge's explosive and engrossing Milk Like Sugar opens with the three entwined pinky-fingers of friends (and high school sophomores) Talisha, Margie, and Annie, as they make a pact to get pregnant together. Despite the realities of teenage motherhood that will further constrict their lives, the girls see their future as one of unconditional love from their babies, enhanced by designer diaper bags and fancy strollers that they will push together down the streets of the hood.

Margie (Carolina Sanchez) is already "PG" (pregnant, in teen lingo) and dreaming of the pink Jordans she will tie on the feet of the little girl (a boy is out of the question) she hopes is coming. The tough-talking Talisha (Shazi Raja) is nearly there, from a relationship with an older man who beats her, but Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) is not so sure of the plan. She is the smartest of the group, an achiever in high school who realizes that there might be something better ahead for her if she can escape the milieu where she, her mother, Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander), and siblings are stuck. Annie is feeling unloved at home, but understands her mother's bitterness over her job cleaning offices when she'd rather be writing stories on a computer, no matter Myrna's lack of education.

The excellent ensemble of actors comprises Shanae Burch as Keera, an outsider to the trio of friends, who, in place of the depravations of her home life, substitutes it with a passionate bond to her church; Matthew J. Harris as Antwoine, a wannabe artist stuck in a tattoo parlor; and Marc Pierre as the brainy senior student, Malik, determined to leave behind his responsibilities to his sick mother in favor of college. All these characters impact Annie's life in ways large and small. However, Annie's most searing relationship is with her mother, who pushes her away and undermines her will to succeed.

Carmichael as Annie leads the cast in a probing performance of a character forced to choose between the bonds of friendship and the certain knowledge that teen pregnancy is more a set of shackles rather than a way out. She plays Annie with all the vanities of the age group, as well as the insecurities, but she also endows her with an appealing openness to change. Carmichael picks up on hints at the alternatives — in Keera's fervent promise of the rewards of religion and in Malik's quiet belief in her abilities. But she cannot overcome the obstacles imposed by her mother or the temptations coming from Antwoine. Equally believable are the sexual stirrings of these teenagers and their desire to explore them.

Alexander as Myrna has the physical presence of a woman who is alternately tired and proud, while loath to give into the advice of her daughter. With a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and the banging of pots and dishes on the table, she cannot hide the slow burn that consumes her.

Greenidge based the play on a news article about a supposed pregnancy pact among a group of students in a Gloucester, Massachusetts high school. Even through the teenage patois is sometimes hard to decipher, the rhythm of the language and the quick pacing of the staccato scenes is mesmerizing.

The production has been directed in antic fashion by M. Bevin O'Gara, to move the action along as if a disc jockey were spinning the high-decibel music that sets the beat. Designer Cristina Todesco created a backdrop of chain-link fencing for the set, symbolizing the enforced isolation of an inner city neighborhood. Sexually charged dance moves are sandwiched between a series of scenes fueled by incendiary dialogue, to further draw the audience into the dead-end promises society has offered these girls, barely out of childhood themselves.

Greenidge's title, Milk Like Sugar, comes from the prevalent practice of impoverished parents feeding powdered milk to their babies. This less expensive formula tastes sweet, but lacks the nourishment of natural milk. Greenidge's imagination has forcefully expanded the symbol of this food into a lifelong journey of mistaken decisions that bring few changes from one generation to the next.