Playwright Kirsten Greenidge had just given birth to her daughter when the story about the so-called "Gloucester pregnancy pact" broke during the summer of 2008. She also had a commission from the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and as part of the deal, the theater sent her to the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual think tank that Greenidge describes as "summer camp for rich people." There she was particularly inspired by sessions that explored the theme of women in the 21st century. And as a new mother, she knew all too well how hard it is to be a parent, even as an adult in a stable marriage. "I started thinking about the Gloucester dilemma,'' she says. "I thought, wow, what if I had had my daughter when I was 16?"
This constellation of events inspired her play "Milk Like Sugar," which begins previews Friday and runs through Feb. 27 in the Huntington Theatre Company's production at the Calderwood Pavilion's Roberts Studio Theatre. The "pregnancy pact" in Gloucester was later debunked: Some 18 girls did become pregnant in a single year at Gloucester High School, but there was no prearranged agreement. And Greenidge is clear that her play isn't so much about teenage pregnancy but rather about the choices — or lack of choices — that some girls have in today's world. The Gloucester case was simply the jumping off point for a play about young women who feel trapped by their circumstances as they come of age. "I got interested in children who fall through the cracks,'' the playwright says. "We love to think these kids fall through the cracks because there is something wrong with them or with their parents. I think all children are beautiful and smart."
Greenidge seems to have an uncanny sense of the world around her, and her plays about contemporary issues have been performed locally and nationwide. The Boston-area native is currently working on commissions for several theaters, and she's about to have two simultaneous productions in the Boston area: Her latest play, "Baltimore," runs Feb. 10-28 at the Boston University Theatre Lane-Comley Studio 210, a co-production of the New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance. Greenidge is never one to shy away from topics that fuel fiery debates, and in "Baltimore" she takes on racial unrest on college campuses.
"Milk Like Sugar" addresses a more intimate issue. In the play, a teenager named Annie is conflicted when her two best friends pressure her to get pregnant. They envision a group baby shower, with designer diaper bags and high-priced gear. In many ways, these girls are typical teens: They dance. They gossip. They text. Incessantly.
But Annie is questioning what she wants in life and searching for identity in a world of few opportunities. And to director M. Bevin O'Gara, that is the crux of the play. "How can we judge these girls when we are assaulting them with images of things they should have and want and not giving them the means to achieve these things?'' says O'Gara, who is the Huntington's associate producer. "What is the cost of dreaming? What happens when your dreams are not attainable?"
The central character must decide whether to honor the agreement she made with her friends or to build a different life of her own. She doesn't have readily available role models, though. She has a complicated relationship with her mother, a single parent who gave birth in her teens and is stuck in a dead-end job cleaning offices. Bitter? Absolutely.
Jasmine Carmichael plays Annie, and at 26, she can relate to the mother-daughter conflict. "Annie is questioning, and she needs her mom to answer Big Questions,'' she says, making quotation marks in the air as she says the last two words. "But her mom may not necessarily have the capacity to answer those questions, whether it's because of a lack of education or she doesn't know or she is still looking for those answers in her own life."
Carmichael readily admits that she drove her own mother crazy when she was 16 — and vice versa. Now, they are close friends. "Later I told her I am sorry that I thought I knew everything and that I thought I could parent better than she could," she says.
The play premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2011 in a production that later played off-Broadway, where it won an Obie Award for Outstanding Playwriting. Greenidge, who grew up in Arlington and now lives in Waltham, is a hot commodity in Boston and nationwide. She is a former Huntington Playwriting Fellow, and her play about discrimination in the real estate industry, "Luck of the Irish," premiered at the theater in 2012. "Baltimore" was commissioned by The New Play Initiative, the brainchild of a group of universities known as The Big Ten Theatre Consortium that is designed to address the underrepresentation of women in theater.
Greenidge started working on "Baltimore" before racial tension escalated last year on such campuses as the University of Missouri and Yale University, driving student protests and attracting national attention. In the play, a young woman accepts a position as a resident adviser for a group of freshmen. But she finds herself in the middle of an explosive situation after a racially charged incident and must mediate tension among eight racially diverse students who all have different perspectives. The play, Greenidge said in an online interview with New Rep producer-in-residence Adrienne Boris, doesn't pretend to solve issues that continue to boil, but it opens the door to a discussion at a time when people are divided over the Black Lives Matter movement and focused on the number of young black men and women who have died in police custody.
The playwright's work is very much of the moment, and as such, she knew she had to do some updating for the Huntington's production of "Milk Like Sugar." The world — and the way teenagers communicate — has changed in the last five years. She had to update references to slider phones and flip phones, which are now retro. And there are no mentions of Facebook. "I was told that Facebook is not where kids hang out because that is where their parents hang out,'' says O'Gara, who along with Greenidge did a reading of the play for students at the Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester. That experience underscored the emotions that drive teenage behavior.
"It was such a good reminder of what it is to be both completely confident and completely vulnerable at the same time," O'Gara says. "I have to keep reminding people that this is teenage logic. This is teenage emotion."
The Huntington production is different in other ways as well. All three young women in the original production were African-American, but Greenidge doesn't specify the races of Annie's two friends in the script. At the Huntington, one is Cuban-American and the other is Pakistani-American. Greenidge has allowed the use of Spanish phrases for this hometown production. And the diversity is by design. "We wanted to make sure that our production reflects Boston and the racial makeup of what students might see on the bus or the subway,'' she says. "We wanted to make sure that there isn't an opportunity to say, 'I wouldn't know these people. This is not my problem.' This isn't just a problem for the black community."
Greenidge also wants to be clear that "Milk Like Sugar" isn't an "issues" play. There is music and dancing and laughter. (O'Gara says audiences can expect to see the dance move "pop, lock, and drop it.") But the play does ask questions about how to empower young women who are not born into privilege and who aren't given an easy ride to college and white-collar careers. The title comes from a type of powdered milk that Annie's mother keeps on the shelf. It is sickeningly sweet, but Annie craves nutrition. She craves substance. She craves that thing called hope.
No spoilers here, but Greenidge does allow that the play ends in silence. She has grown attached to the characters she first dreamed up during that intense summer eight years ago. "I care about them very much, and if I could protect them I would," she says. "If I could create a better alternative reality for them I would. But I want to make sure that their stories are told in a way that respects them."
MILK LIKE SUGAR
By Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Jan. 29
to Feb. 27. Tickets start
at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
By Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by Boston Center for American Performance and New Repertory Theatre. At Boston University Theatre Lane-Comley Studio 210, Feb. 10 to 28. Tickets $20 to $30, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.