The Color of Sugar

by August Schulenburg

in Edgerton New Plays

Post image for The Color of Sugar

(Photo: Craig Schwartz. Pictured: Angela Lewis, J. Mallory McCree)

To better tell the stories of the Edgerton grantees, we’ll be sharing details from the plays and productions. In a recent discussion with Stephen McCormick, the Director of Education and Outreach at La Jolla Playhouse, I learned about a particularly fascinating post-show conversation surrounding their production of Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar.

A little background: Milk Like Sugar was a co-commission with Theater Master and La Jolla Playhouse, and a co-production with Playwrights Horizons and Women’s Project (are we entering into a golden age of cross-theatre collaboration?)

According to McCormick, “The purpose of the commission was to address the lack of plays that grapple directly with social issues; for that reason, we selected Kirsten Greenidge, a writer whose body of work mines the intersection between race, class and culture. ”

In an unusual turn for commissions, Greenidge attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, a global event where leaders from many disciplines engage in deep and inquisitive discussion of current issues.

“Each seminar begins with people talking about their big idea,” says Greenidge. “A lot of people talked about how to help communities in need, and one big idea that kept being tossed around was this idea that if you want to help a community, you invest in its young girls.”

Greenidge connected that discussion to a 2008 teenage pregnancy boom at Gloucester High School in MA, incorrectly reported to be the result of a pregnancy pact between students. La Jolla knew that this subject might be controversial, and it was, but not in the way they expected. McCormick graciously took the time to share what happened in the following email interview:

1. What was the genesis of the panel Milk Like Sugar: a Conversation about Art, Representation and Race?

When this play was being developed we knew that we were dealing with some touchy subject matter. Although at its core this play deals with some profound issues, on the surface, this play appears to be a play about a group of teenagers who enter into a pregnancy pact. The Playhouse was aggressive in reaching out to groups that work with pregnant teens and ensuring that we were serving due diligence to this provocative subject. Once the play began previews, there was an overwhelmingly positive response from most audience members. Within certain sectors of our community however, we were surprised to learn that some people were upset with the play – not because of the teen pregnancy topic as we expected, but rather they were offended that the young women in the play were African American.

While La Jolla Playhouse has an adventuresome audience, the majority of our audience members are Caucasian. Some people in the African American community felt that we were reinforcing negative stereotypes some Caucasians have of African American teens. One specific comment we heard was “right play, wrong theatre.” Our Artistic Director Christopher Ashley felt that instead of ignoring negative reactions to the show, we should provide a forum for an open and un-biased discussion about people’s reactions to the show. We felt no need to defend the play or the production, rather we recognized an opportunity for community engagement and discussion.

Photo: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz. Pictured: playwright Kirsten Greenidge, director Rebecca Taichman

2. What happened at the panel, and how did that change the play’s relationship to San Diego’s community?

As we wanted the panel discussion to be open to all ideas, we made sure we invited a diverse group of people to take part and we hired an independent moderator. Our panel ended up being comprised of the playwright, a representative from the NAACP, a member of the Playhouse’s artistic staff, a board member from an African American theatre company and a person who works with at-risk teens. Some of these panelists had positive reactions to the play while others did not.

This event was open to the public, so we invited community groups and organizations to be in the audience and to take part in the conversation. We also identified people that had either written about or shared a negative response to the show and invited them to attend as well. We wanted a real conversation that was open to everyone, and even though this event took place between a matinee and an evening performance, the entire cast of the show chose to give up their dinner break to participate.

Throughout the course of the discussion, we had staff members in the audience with microphones so that people’s comments and questions could be heard by all. Our excellent moderator worked diligently to create an environment where all opinions could safely be expressed. The outcome was remarkable. The theatre came alive with debate and conversation that was frank and respectful at the same time.

Following the event, many people commented that they were pleased the Playhouse had the courage to invite opposing points of view to be on our stage and debate the issues. One guest who had been particularly vocal in opposition to the play confided that over the course of the discussion she had changed her mind about the play; the discussion allowed her to think about the broader themes and messages within the story. She even asked for tickets to come back and see the play again. There were guests who were moved and guests who remained steadfast in their opinions, but all were glad that they attended and that they had the opportunity to express their points of view.

3. What additional conversations have surrounded this production?

For each of our productions we have a program which is called REACTION. Following certain performances, a member of the Playhouse Education& Outreach staff leads audience members in a discussion similar to one you would have as a member of a book club. The play is explored as a written work and not as a production. We talk about the characters’ choices, the arc of the story and the lessons learned. For our production of Milk Like Sugar we found that the REACTION discussions were more dynamic and engaging than ones we have done for other productions. This turned out to be a play that people wanted to talk about. How thrilling to have an audience that wants to stay after a performance and talk about what they experienced!

We added a student matinee for the production, attended by 400 high school-aged students. At the talkback following that performance, the actors had just as many questions for the students as the students had for them. Once again, it turned into a discussion – a conversation. The actors wanted to know if the teenagers in the play were being portrayed in a truthful manner. The student audience was shocked to learn that the actors were not teenagers themselves. We held follow-up conversations in each classroom of the schools that attended, led by a Playhouse teaching artist.

We also held another post-performance discussion where we brought in Gaby Rodriguez, a Washington teen who, for her senior project, faked a pregnancy for six months in order to document the ways in which people’s attitudes toward her had changed. Needless to say, there were many conversations surrounding this production that were vibrant and exhilarating.

4. What are your major take-aways from the experience?

 There is a beautiful symmetry in the fact that a play inspired by discussions Kirsten had at the Aspen Ideas Festival grew into a production that blossomed into multiple discussions and opportunities for audience engagement. The first sentence of our mission statement is, “La Jolla Playhouse advances theatre as an art from and as a vital social, moral and political platform by providing unfettered creative opportunities for the leading artists of today and tomorrow.” The production of Milk Like Sugar could not have been more perfectly suited to the Playhouse’s mission, as it provided the vital social platform for these many discussions to be had within our community.

MILK LIKE SUGAR closed at La Jolla Playhouse on September 25, and is currently running in the Off-Broadway Peter Jay Sharp Theatre through November 20.

The Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Program, directed by Brad and Louise Edgerton, was piloted in 2006 with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles by offering two musicals in development an extended rehearsal period for the entire creative team, including the playwrights. The Edgertons launched the program nationally in 2007 and have supported 128 plays to date in 50 different Art Theaters across the country. The Edgerton Foundation received the 2011 TCG National Funder Award in June in Los Angeles.

TCG member theaters with a strong and consistent track record of producing new work are invited by the foundation to submit letters of inquiry to A panel of readers reviews the plays and one-time grants ranging from $5,000 – $75,000 are awarded.

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also the Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays include Riding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq) and actor (currently filming The Golden Scallop). Learn more here.

  • Robertbhunter35

    The original idea for the play began with white teen agers in Mass.If this play had cast white actors, it would not have been successful. The U.S. theater public cannot buy into the correct view, that most teen age pregnancy occurs in the white population. Sure. relative to the black population black teenagers do have a high percentage rate. but the rate of teen age pregnancy is more prevalent in the majority white population.
    A white theater audience cannot accept seeing a play that depicts a problem in the white community. It is safer to view and discuss the problem of teen-age pregnancy as it relates to the black community. This is not due to racism–it is due to good marketing.
    Rev. Robert Hunter
    Episcopal Priest, Diocese of Washington