In the latest La Jolla Playhouse drama, Milk Like Sugar, the well of wisdom is often empty

By Diana Saenger

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge often pens stories with characters who must explore truth in themselves or their situation. Her latest, “Milk Like Sugar,” in rehearsal at the La Jolla Playhouse, lends itself to that theme as a group of teen-age girls enter into a life-changing pact that transforms their lives forever. Rebecca Taichman (“Sleeping Beauty Wakes)” directs “Milk Like Sugar,” a recipient of a 2011 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award. It is a co-commission with Theatre Masters, produced in association with Playwrights Horizons and The Women’s Project.

Appearing as Myrna is Tony Award-winner Tonya Pinkins who has a wide array of stage, TV and film credits — Playhouse’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline or Change,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Disney’s “Enchanted,” “24,” “Law and Order,” and “The Closer.”

Pinkins said she admires The Women’s Project. “They have a commitment to women writers, directors and artists, and stories unique to women,” Pinkins said. “I heard that last year the same number of women playwrights’ works were produced as in 1931. The Women’s Project is one of the few places where women artists have an opportunity to express their voices and produce their visions.”

The cast also features Cherise Boothe (Talisha), Angela Lewis (Annie), Nikiya Mathis (Margie), LeRoy McClain (Antwoine), J. Mallory-McCree (Malik) and Adrienne C. Moore (Keera).

Pinkins’ character, Myrna, is mother to 16-year-old Annie who has questions not even her mom can answer.

“Life has not been what Myrna had hoped for,” Pinkins said. “Because of some personal things she’s going through — like getting fired — Myrna lashes out at Annie who only wants some advice from her. But Annie’s hitting her mom at a time when she has an empty well and that forces Annie to make a bad mistake.”

The play’s theme of choosing between the safety of the life you know and the danger of the life you desire resonates with Pinkins who has her eye on all aspects of her career, which she seems to handle quite well, even while married and raising six children.

In her 2006 book, “Get Over Yourself: How to Drop the Drama and Claim the Life You Deserve,” Pinkins offers techniques to help readers develop and obtain goals. The book also answers questions that help fill the well of actors reaching for the fame she has achieved.

“Actors often go through difficult times. So with the book, I wanted to teach them to think of themselves as business people,” Pinkins said. “Using the principles in my book has gotten me through some very tough times.”

In “Milk Like Sugar,” Annie also faces challenging times. Pinkins believes the play mirrors today’s culture where TV-screen images encourage kids in negative ways.

“Many girls have embraced the idea of being teen-age moms as if it’s something to celebrate,” she said. “We’ve got magazines dedicated to teen-age moms on the cover and TV series about teen moms as if that’s something to aspire to.”

While the cast is working hard before the show opens, Pinkins said they are also having fun, and for her, there’s nothing more exciting than live theater. “I’ve been fortunate to work with new playwrights and the best of the best during my generation. To be in the room watching geniuses do what they do, and feel you have a part in the things in their heads coming to life, is thrilling. I worked with Rebecca before on “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and she’s great.”

Told through savage humor and gritty poetry, Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley called “Milk Like Sugar” a poignant story that will resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.

If you go

What: “Milk Like Sugar”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30–Sept. 25

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, UCSD campus

Tickets: From $35


Box Office: (858) 550-1010