Milk Like Sugar at Studio 201

Even the journey to Studio 201 seemed perfectly suited to the experience that was Milk Like Sugar, a play about an underprivileged 16-year-old girl who must decide whether to follow through on her friends’ pregnancy pact. When our Lyft dropped us off at a seemingly deserted warehouse, we were near positive the location was wrong and we’d been stranded God knows where. But thankfully, Carnegie Mellon is a master of signs. We followed a trail of logoed arrows, which circled almost 360 degrees around the building and finally arrived at an unassuming door marked “ENTER” in spray-painted letters. This one actually opened, and once inside, we were given our tickets and ushered into the largest, coolest freight elevator I’ve ever seen.

When we joined the half full audience, I felt that we’d stumbled upon a niche experimental theater piece. The set itself was immediately eye-catching. A wall of cardboard Pepsi boxes surrounded several monitors which blasted Nicki Minaj music videos, a sugary yet tooth-rotting pop culture reference that foreshadowed the central metaphor of Milk Like Sugar.

The play, written by Kirsten Greenidge in 2011, is clearly contemporary, riddled with slang-heavy dialogue and perhaps already outdated references to the un-coolness of flip-phones. The plot hearkens back to after-school specials and ABC teen dramas, where the protagonist must rise above her situation and break the cycle of teen motherhood, abusive relationships, and underemployment. I was relieved that Milk Like Sugar managed to avoid the worst cliches, including — worst of all — an improbably happy ending.

The play could’ve easily fallen flat without junior acting major Daryl Paris Bright’s portrayal of earnest but never pitiful Annie. Junior musical theatre major Lea DiMarchi also shined as Annie’s best friend Talisha, a self-righteous bully in a snapback who turns to well-off older men to distract her from her poor life prospects. Senior acting major Alexandra Miyashiro’s Margie was perhaps the least compelling character, a shallow and clueless lollipop-licking girl who inspires the trio’s pact with her accidental pregnancy.

Annie is at the crossroads of an identity crisis. Talisha and Margie pressure her to go splitsies on a kickass baby shower. Her would-be “baby daddy” Malik, an amateur astronomer endearingly played by junior acting major Siddiq Saunderson, encourages her to follow him to college. Junior musical theatre major Iris Beaumier’s Keera, a wholesome poindexter-type who somehow becomes one of the play’s most interesting characters, preaches about the power of prayer and family game night.

Senior musical theatre major Rayquila Durham also gave a standout performance as Annie’s mother Myrna, a janitor who can barely read but dreams of becoming a writer. Having been a teen mom herself, Myrna works hard to provide for Annie, yet cannot bear the thought of her daughter proving herself to be “better.” Durham makes palpable Myrna’s battle between supporting Annie’s aspirations and shielding herself from the knowledge that a better life is beyond her reach. In one of the show’s most powerful scenes, Myrna rebels against Keera’s religious idealism, demanding to see “the Holy Ghost fry up some chicken” if he wants a prayer of gratitude so badly.

Predictably, Annie’s potential paths for a “better” life go sour. Like clockwork, Annie falls out with every important figure in her life. Instead of adding much depth to the characters, these annoyingly equidistant scenes veered toward melodrama and the “tragic backstory” trope, reiterating the same PSA points until they grew tiresome.

Junior musical theatre major John Clay III played Love Interest #2 Antwoine, a tattoo artist who provides Annie with yet another hard dose of reality along with an unexpected shot of self-worth. Unlike Malik and Keera, Antwoine values Annie for the person she is, not for who he could shape her to be. When he and Annie make love, the distorted videos in the background grow clearer, actually focusing in on our protagonist’s face, and the “Great Wall” of Pepsi crashes down. Annie finds a moment of genuine connection and transcendence above the sugary fakeness that permeates her life. Even though she has fallen down the path society prescribes to girls like her, she actively makes that choice. Her lack of opportunity is tragic, as is the pervasiveness of such cycles of deprivation in low-income communities. It’s tragic that Annie has few better options than to tumble into Antwoine’s arms. But Milk Like Sugar is saved from being trite or overbearing by the fact that Annie is not a tragic character.

Milk Like Sugar has a number of points it’d like to shove down your throat, but with its intriguing use of multimedia and a few electric performances, its often bitter message goes down sweet.