There is nothing more satisfying than that first crackle as you tap your spoon into the rock hard top of a crème brulee. Five simple household ingredients – cream, vanilla, salt, eggs and sugar – make up the dessert. The most important part of the recipe is extreme heat – an open flame — often a propane torch. Crème brulee can only be achieved by scorching the sugar into another state altogether.
I kept thinking about the ingredients that made up Kirsten Greenidge’s densely layered new play Milk Like Sugar, now having its RI premiere at Epic Theatre Company. Three girls are celebrating one’s sweet 16 birthday – at a tattoo parlor. The conversation and chemistry between the three girls rings true — boys, phones, texting, tattoos — genuinely sweet and salty and just bursting with youthful energy.
Birthday girl Annie (a sweetly intelligent Valearie Kane) initially wants a ladybug, her childhood nickname from her mother, but starts to crave something more adventurous, like a flame. Talisha (a charismatic and fierce Angelique Dina) shoots that idea down as childish and insists that she get a rose – so she can be more
like she and friend Margie (a very funny, very real Alijah Ileana Dickenson).
The three girls are captivating in this first scene, the conversation bounces along with a contagious flow – Margie is happily pregnant. I’m not sure if the actual word is ever uttered – slang and code and euphemisms are the language spoken in this world. Margie is “PG” and looking toward the name brand baby shower loot that she will undoubtedly receive. Dickenson really owns the comedic elements of the character, self-satisfied in her accomplishment of being the first one pregnant.
The trio’s naïve excitement as they discuss this fantasy world of luxury gifts that a new baby would provide them proves contagious. Soon the three are excitedly planning the ideal scenario, coming up with the irresistible idea that all three of them would get PG together and share in the spoils. For it isn’t just Coach baby bags and pink Jordans that they will gain from this, as Annie points out that a baby will bring to her life the love that she so sorely misses from her own family. “Won’t need moms no more if we each have tiny little babies made just for us, right?” concludes Annie. They pinky swear, the pregnancy plan is put into motion, and Annie chooses a flame as her tattoo.
As Annie’s mother – and the only adult figure in the play – Sonya Joyner turns in an unyielding portrait of a self-centered mother who is fueled by resentment. Frustrated with her lot in life, she cannot bring herself to even wish her daughter a “Happy Birthday,” she is so caught up in her own daily disappointment. Without love or a guiding figure in her life – or hell, anyone who actually gives her a moment of real attention – it is not hard to see why Annie is searching for something – anything that will give her a sense of purpose.
To keep her part of the bargain, Annie attempts to seduce high school senior Malik (a sweet and sensitive David Monteiro). Keenly aware of the bigger picture of their life, Malik is the playwright’s poetic voice of reason, someone who will find himself a ticket out of this life. Instead of booze, he brings a telescope to their initial rooftop date. His monologue to Annie about the planes flying above their heads, filled with people who laugh at his foolish choices, is really lovely.
We meet Keera, another student at school who stands in stark contrast to the tough-talking Talisha and Margie. Played by a pitch-perfect Jackie Aguirre, Keera is a religious army of one, dressed in an impossibly modest “uniform” and armed with a bagful of evangelical axioms. The scene where she meets Annie’s mother and unabashedly shares her religious dogma is an uncomfortable delight.
Under growing pressure from Talisha (who surprisingly is also PG in what seems to be the quickest plot development of all time), Annie returns to tattoo artist Antwoine (Ibrahima Tylar Jahumpa) for him to mark her with an even larger flame — and his services as baby daddy.
Tammy Brown directs the play with a sure hand, guiding her actors toward very realistic and lived-in performances. The only complaint that I would share was that I desperately wanted to see more faces of the actors. Between blocking issues and a lack of light on the stage during most of the nighttime scenes, I felt I was missing an important element.
Epic Theatre Company’s Milk Like Sugar by Kirsten Greenidge runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, now through Feb 24. Performances are at Theatre 82, in Cranston. High school and college students get in free as part of Epic’s Free Ticketing Program. For tickets or more information, visit artists-exchange.org/theatre82/upcomingperformances.html