Tonya Pinkins and Angela Lewis
in Milk Like Sugar
(© Ari Mintz)
Tonya Pinkins and Angela Lewis
in Milk Like Sugar
(© Ari Mintz)
Kirsten Greenidge takes audiences on an inner-city teenage girl's roller-coaster ride of self discovery in Milk Like Sugar, at Playwrights Horizons. Simultaneously gritty and lyrical, the show, directed with care by Rebecca Taichman, proves to be an exhilarating and moving experience, filled with a host of fine performances.

At the play's center is Annie (Angela Lewis), who is celebrating her 16th birthday by getting a tattoo. As cell phones buzz with incoming text messages and she and her two BFFs, Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and Margie (Nikiya Mathis) chat, the trio make a pact to all have babies together during the course of the just-beginning school year. Margie's already pregnant and can't wait for the gifts, and the threesome can't imagine anything more fun than having their shower together and receiving matching baby things.

So begins Annie's journey through a landmine-filled world where the universe seems to be telling her that there might be something else for her than pregnancy. For instance, Malik (J.Mallory-McCree), the guy whom she thinks might father her child, describes his plans for his future, including college.

Meanwhile, Keera (Adriennce C. Moore), the new kid at school whom Talisha bullies into doing her homework, paints a perfect picture of her home life, where the family all sits down to dinner at 6pm and churchgoing is a joy.

But even as Annie cautiously begins to see (and pursue) alternative routes in her life, she encounters seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, from peer pressure to the cruel disdain her dreams inspire in her chain-smoking mother, Myrna (Tonya Pinkins), a cleaning woman who had her daughter before she had finished junior high school.

This scenario, in lesser hands, could easily become the theatrical equivalent of an After School Special, but Greenidge's script consistently resists the preachy and sentimental qualities normally associated with such programming. Instead, she fills the play with satire (the girls all judge potential boyfriends by the type of cell phone they carry), and exceptional linguistic flights. (The play's title comes from Malik's lament about the powdered milk in the cupboards at his house.)

Shrewdly, the physical production of the script carries its own symbolism: the central concrete wall of Mimi Lien's scenic design slowly recedes each time Annie's horizons are expanded, and designer Andre Pluess skillfully underscores the imagery found in the script in his soundscape.

There are also the tough, warm and uniformly riveting performances from the ensemble (which also includes LeRoy McClain as the tattoo artist to whom Annie finds herself returning). At the center of the play is Lewis' luminescent, hopeful and understandably skittish Annie. Pinkins, cigarette dangling from her mouth, amuses as Myrna pieces together her employers' lives from the things she finds in their wastebaskets, and frightens, unbearably, when she lashes out at her daughter's dreams.

Boothe delivers a marvelously modulated performance as Talisha, slowly revealing what lies under the character's tough girl exterior, and Moore brings a sunniness to the role and play that, appropriately enough, is never saccharine.