Winner of a 2012 Obie Award for playwriting, Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar has finally arrived in Boston with a stylish and absorbing production at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Milk Like Sugar is about three 16-year-old girls who enter into a pregnancy pact that they believe will guarantee a bright future for them. Bright, anyway, as measured by material possessions that they think go hand in hand with having both a baby and a baby daddy.
At the center of the play is Annie, a bright and curious yet impressionable girl who, unlike her friends Talisha and Margie, still has one foot in childhood. She begins to question the plan and wonder if there’s not something better for her out there. Her complicated relationship with her bitter mother, Myrna, only makes things murkier for Annie.
Greenidge has written a play that is both captivating and stark, exploring beautifully the impossibility of unequipped young girls making real, big decisions. It is a reminder that not all of us are lucky enough to have people to look up to and that sometimes just having the audacity to dream takes an enormous amount of courage.
Jasmine Carmichael plays Annie, and her performance is effortless and unmissable. She took the time to chat with me on her day off about the challenges of playing Annie, the brilliance of Kirsten Greenidge, and one particularly fulfilling audience interaction.
I saw Milk Like Sugar last night. I have to say, I was shocked when I looked at your bio and noticed that you were not really 16. You really tap into everything that a 16-year-old girl embodies: the uncertainty, the naivete. Annie is impressionable but she’s also very scared. I’m so impressed by how you were able to pull that off, so congratulations.
Thank you so much! Thank you.
It’s really quite a performance. I loved it. The audience seemed really into it, too.
Yeah, the audience was incredible last night. There were three girls around 16 who were in the audience, and they were really into the show and really vocal. And dancing.
[laughs] Yes, I saw them!
We’ve been working on it so long and to now finally get to have people in and see it and have them respond to it and connect and like it has been so great. It’s been such a wonderful experience.
I was unprepared for how sad the show actually was to me. I found that I had confidence in Annie very early on, and to see her struggle with some big decisions throughout the play was riveting but heartbreaking.
This was one of the things that we were tracking when we were working on the show: The play happens so fast, but the play takes place in the span of a week. So much of the end of the play takes place in the span of one day or one night, really. So it’s just this roller coaster of stuff that happens where all of the sudden all these possibilities have fallen away and Annie was just looking for something to feel good. That’s something very human that we all do. She needs to feel something, and she needs to feel something from someone she thinks cares about her.
It was devastating to see Annie kind of heading toward the right path, headstrong about looking for more, until her mother tells her that she’s not worth shit. You see this immediate switch in Annie.
I think that’s definitely it. It’s her last resort. We worked so hard and we’re still constantly working every day, Ramona [Lisa Alexander] and I. Ramona plays Myrna, my mom in the show. It’s such an important relationship, especially when you’re 16 years old. Personally, my mom and I, we get along wonderfully now, I love her so much, but at that time in my life we were butting heads all the time and arguing like teenagers do, especially moms and daughters. It’s such a complicated relationship, and Annie and her mom have such a complicated relationship. Oh, God, there are so many layers and so many complexities, but at the end of the day, they really love each other, and Annie really does need her. For her mom to do that and say that at that critical, crucial moment really does kind of push her.
What has been your biggest challenge with bringing Annie to life?
In the beginning it was hard to tap into the relationship with Annie’s mom because it’s so important to her, and all of those layers. It was hard to flesh out and still make it feel real. I was working really hard with that, trying to understand that. And then I just keep having to remember what it’s like to be 16 and be a teenager and to have all of these truths going on and all these hormones going on. And not judging her choices, not coming from a place of having lived and understanding, like, “Okay, this is not the best idea.” I’m really excited and so happy that that’s reading because [it] was what I really wanted and that’s what you need for this show more than anything. My director [M. Bevin O’Gara] said one day, “At 16 you’re all at once invincible and completely vulnerable.” So getting to that point has been the biggest challenge, I think.
How has it been having Kirsten Greenidge there for the whole process?
It’s been awesome. First of all, Kirsten is just such a brilliant, brilliant writer. Her words, when you just give in to them, make it really easy to understand these girls and all of these characters. She gives you such fantastic things to say in the play. She’s also just a warm, welcoming woman. She was with us pretty much every single day. As an artist, you can be protective over your work or sensitive about it, but she is not that way at all. She’s very open. She’s very available. We’re happy when we see her come in; we want her to be there.
What has been the most fulfilling thing for you so far?
Honestly, last night when I got to talk to those 16-year-old girls. That was the most fulfilling part for me. They really connected to the show and they really saw themselves in that character. They said their mom was taking them to see this show and she told them they were going to learn life lessons. The one girl was like, “Why would I want to go see that? I’m just going to fall asleep.” And from the time that she heard the music and saw the way we opened the show, her head popped up and from that moment on she was completely invested in the show and went along on the journey. To know that they saw something and that it will stick with them, that was really awesome and so fulfilling. I’ve been thinking about them all last night and today, ’cause that’s who we really do it for. That’s all that you’re hoping for. And to be able to do that is such a gift.
I definitely saw them.
They were so in it and vocal and really enjoying it. Especially in theater, your typical audience is quiet and respectful and they know, I’m using air quotes here, what’s “appropriate” or “not appropriate,” so when you have that energy it’s really exciting. We’re doing student matinee performances later this month and I’m really excited for those because I know those kids are going to eat it up. It’s a fantastic show to bring schools to.
It is. It’s so nice to see young people interested, not only in the show, but in talking to you afterwards. It makes me so glad.
Yeah, that’s definitely the most, most fulfilling part of this.
MILK LIKE SUGAR. RUNS THROUGH 2.27 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.