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THEATER REVIEW: World premiere of “Milk Like Sugar” is a little shaky

Malik (J. Mallory-McCree) is young, black and poor like everyone else in “Milk Like Sugar,” but through his telescope he sees a world outside, beyond his stifling environment.

Though from his window at home all he sees are airplanes whizzing by overhead, even they spark his desire to escape, go to college and perhaps be an airline passenger himself one day.

But the plot centers around three high school sophomores: bossy Talisha (Cherise Boothe), dingbat fashion horse (FIX) Margie (Nikiya Mathis) and uncertain quester Annie (Angela Lewis), all first seen in a tattoo parlor where Annie plans to get her first ink. She wants a ladybug tat, but opts for a flame when her friends make fun of her choice.

Kirsten Greenidge’s award-winning (and metaphor-laden) play is now in its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse. Rebecca Taichman directs.

Like Malik, the girls suffer from abusive, distant or absent parenting and a lack of positive role models. But they lack his aspirations to something better. They endure their dead-end school (which somehow even they know is failing them) and focus their attention on things – tattoos, fashion and especially the comparative quality of cell phones.

Annie seems at least potentially a good student – she corrects everybody’s grammar and takes shy interest in the college brochures her teacher staples to her papers – but though she wavers, Talisha’s “You don’t wanta be all alone, Anniegirl” seals the deal and she joins a “pinky-swear” pregnancy pact with Talisha and the already-pregnant Maggie.

“Little baby gonna love us all for us and we gonna do everything the right way for them,” Annie says, planning to target Malik as sperm donor.

The problem with Malik, as Annie sees it, is that he has escape ideas that both intrigue and frighten her. And he doesn’t want them stifled by anybody’s pregnancy. He offers Annie a glimpse of that other world through his telescope, but she is too scared even to look.

Greenidge, who teaches young college students in Boston, captures the speaking style of young, poor black girls well – which is both blessing and curse, especially for La Jolla Playhouse audiences. This patois is another language to most, and I needed supertitles – as did most of the people I talked to after the show.

Boothe, Mathis and Lewis are convincing as the girls who think motherhood will elevate their status and perhaps take them out of the box their family situations have placed them in. Mimi Lien’s neon-banded moving stone wall serves as visual metaphor, moving as decisions are made and changed.

Three other characters figure into the plot: new girl in school Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), who teaches Sunday school and may offer another option for Annie; tattoo artist Antwoine (LeRoy McClain), possibly the most levelheaded of the bunch; and Annie’s mother Myrna (a magnificent Tonya Pinkins), cigarette dangling out of her mouth and the look and sound of someone who has “if only” regrets.

“Milk Like Sugar” (the title refers to powdered milk, a staple of purchases for food stamp recipients. It is easy to use, lasts forever and looks like sugar, but isn’t the real thing.

Given its subject matter and language issues, “Milk Like Sugar” would perhaps be best used as a touring educational show for at-risk teens. But first the script needs to be tightened into a one-act format.

The details

“Milk Like Sugar” plays through Sept. 25 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets call (858) 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.