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Review: ‘Milk Like Sugar’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC

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Milk Like Sugar, the Obie Award-winning play that just opened at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, starts off as badass comedy, the kind where the word “shit”—repeated like an “amen” at the end of each line—is more of an expletive than a noun.

(L to R) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Kashayna Johnson, and Jeremy Keith Hunter. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

(L to R) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Kashayna Johnson, and Jeremy Keith Hunter. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

But it’s down and dirty, and delivers a wallop that will have audiences—if they’re at all like the one I joined—reeling before the end.

The plot involves three inner-city high school girls who decide to get pregnant. They think it’s a cool way to get matching diaper bags—preferably Coach—and validate their existence in a world that doesn’t value them at all.

In the hands of Playwright Kirsten Greenidge—here making her long-awaited DC debut—the girls’ banter, at first, is very funny. In fact, the number of misconceptions (pun intended) about pregnancy and sex is hilarious. But the laughter is comic relief. There’s a dark underside to this joke that will leave audiences thinking about it long after the lights go up.

The play centers around Annie, who is celebrating her 16th birthday by getting her first tattoo. She and her friends are drinking, boasting about sex, and assuring each other that babies, if conceived in the right position, can be female, cuddly, and cute.

Kashayna Johnson delivers a bravura performance as a girl who longs for parents who care. She is torn between the unimaginable—going to college and escaping a life of scraping by—and the familiar.

Kashayna Johnson. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Kashayna Johnson. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Meanwhile, the smart-alecky friends—Margie, who is already pregnant, and Talisha, who is trying to get there—are threatening her with social expulsion if she doesn’t go along with their plot. Ghislaine Dwarka plays Margie with smug confidence, while Renee Elizabeth Wilson gives us a sidekick who is as brazen as she is bad. The locker-room scenes at school are particularly poignant.

Even the girls’ nemesis—a classmate named Keera, portrayed with evanescent fervor by Tyasia Velines—sounds comic, especially when describing the idyllic home life of a family that actually eats dinner together.

And plays board games. And goes to church.

Keera is literally ‘Little Goody Two-Shoes,’ a teenager who eschews name brand sneakers in favor of white satin slippers and who quotes Jesus on most things.

Annie’s mother, Myrna, is played by Helen Hayes Award winner Deidra LaWan Starnes. She is stunning in the part of the worn-out parent who writes stories but can barely read, who cleans offices at night, but yearns to occupy an empty cubicle and use an idle computer. It’s a memorable role, brilliantly performed.

Malik, the “good boy” who studies hard—knowing it is the only way to break out of the prison of bleak expectations—is portrayed with a combination of boyish glee and stoic determination by Vaughn Ryan Midder. Another Helen Hayes Award winner, Midder is wonderful when he tries to inject a little romance into sex, or to introduce Annie to a larger universe.

His counterpart is Antwoine. As the tattooist who would rather be an artist—he is described as “the Picasso of tattoo”—Jeremy Keith Hunter delivers a performance that is almost sweet in his willingness to accede to others’ demands.

All the children in this play have been rejected by the system—which underfunds the schools they attend—and by their parents who, like those in fairy tales, disappear, only to be replaced by strangers worn down by drugs and disease and degrading jobs.

At one point, Malik remarks that it’s the good teachers—like the one who has tried to get him to think about college—who should be kept back. Instead, the good teachers leave, and the incompetents remain.

Milk Like Sugar is billed as a play about coming of age, but it’s more than that. It’s an indictment of an economic and educational system in which children are routinely failed, and in which materialism—epitomised here in the deification of smart phones—outranks human values.

One of the most beautiful images in the play is one in which Malik points to the night sky and conjures up an airplane full of passengers who are looking down at them, wondering how it is possible to live as they do.

Malik wants to be one of the passengers in the plane, and not one of the victims below.

Much of the power of this production is due to a talented creative and technical team. Headed by Jennifer L. Nelson, who is Mosaic’s Resident Director, the group has assembled an entire world in the space of a small stage.

The single set, designed by Luciana Stecconi, combines the interior of a modest row house—complete with kitchen table and sparsely-filled cabinet shelves—with a tattoo parlor, a school with its beat-up lockers, the roof of a building beneath an awesome sky and even the dark streets of the inner city itself.

Lighting that sky, and filling it with a canopy of comic-style stars, is the work of Lighting Designer Dan Covey, who also creates the bleakness of city streets at night.

Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson does wonders recreating the music of the period—including the tinny sound of Keera’s old radio—while Marci Rodgers has put together some of the liveliest teenage outfits seen this side of H&M. Myrna’s “dress up” clothes—donned for a visit to the boss—tell us volumes about her dreams, while Keera’s old-fashioned dress establishes her as a girl in whom poverty and gentility coexist

Deb Thomas is responsible for the props—including telescopes and an easel—while Technical Director William M. Woodard and Stage Manager Hope Villanueva are the people who make it all work.

Milk Like Sugar is the first play at Mosaic to use surtitles. These are not translations or transliterations but spoken dialogue, every word of which is projected onto the façade of an upper story of the house. Gregory Towle is the designer who has turned an aural script into language accessible for the deaf.

Director Nelson, who has spent more than 40 years as a theatre professional—and is the former head of the League of Washington Theatres—says she has had her eye on the play ever since she met the author several years ago, when Greenidge was Playwright-In-Residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

“It was just a question of time before the rights were available,” she adds, pointing out that Milk Like Sugar was first commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse and produced there in 2011, then transferred to the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, where it won the 2012 Obie Award for playwriting.

While I found the play somewhat uneven—and yes, there are a few rough patches, where the laughs are too facile and the characters seem to have stepped out of a sitcom—there are moments of sorrow and hope that are rare in theatre.

L to R: Tyasia Velines, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Ghislaine Dwarka, Kashayna Johnson (forward), Renee Elizabeth Wilson, and Jeremy Keith Hunter. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

L to R: Tyasia Velines, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Ghislaine Dwarka, Kashayna Johnson (forward), Renee Elizabeth Wilson, and Jeremy Keith Hunter. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

The church, while never seen, is a beacon. Parodied, yet reluctantly praised, it is as much a source of salvation for Keera as education is for Malik.

After the play, Ari Roth, Mosaic’s Founder and Artistic Director, described it to me as “heart-breaking, yet full of hope.” These young people, he added, “are outwardly strong, but in fact, so very vulnerable.”

It is the vulnerability that haunts. And that makes Milk Like Sugar a must-see of this theater season.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

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Milk Like Sugar plays through November 27, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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