Pop quiz: Where will you find some of the most honest, moving, skillful acting on any Chicago stage at the moment?
Answer: You might be surprised to hear this, but it is at Raven Theatre, where a remarkable company of (mostly) teenage actors — students in the arts magnet program of Senn High School, who are members of a unique theater company there called The Yard — are performing Kirsten Greenidge’s play, “Milk Like Sugar.”
‘MILK LIKE SUGAR’
When: Through Jan. 23
Where: The Yard at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Tickets: $10 – $15
Info: (773) 338-2177; www.raventheatre.com or http://www.the-yard.org
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Directed by Mechelle Moe and Joel Ewing —the veteran artists who serve as these students’ teachers and mentors, and have created a company that brilliantly bridges the worlds of arts education and professional theater — the show is authentic in a way that it can only be when adolescents play themselves. But without reading the program bios you would never guess these young actors were not stage veterans.
Moe and Ewing worked similar magic earlier this season when they staged Sean Graney’s “The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide” in collaboration with The Hypocrites — one of the three companies (Jackalope Theatre is the other) with which The Yard is now collaborating. “Milk Like Sugar” is just further proof that something extraordinary is at play here.
Credit also goes to the award-winning writer, Greenidge, who has injected tremendous heart, soul and pathos into her characters — a group of high school students in a small town in Massachusetts who have little money, many family issues, a wide array of dreams, a hunger for consumer culture, and all the confusion about present temptations and future outcomes that are a product of their age and circumstances.
It all begins as the smart, sensitive Annie (the wonderfully real, superbly understated Ireon Roach) turns 16, and heads to a tattoo parlor with her more aggressive best friends, Margie (sassy Sheharrell Rhodes), and the verbally aggressive Talisha (a fierce Lawren Carter). The Coach-purse-loving Margie has just learned she is pregnant, and she and Talisha, who is all about high-end cell phones, are trying to convince Annie they should all have babies at the same time and reap the gifts that come with such an announcement.
Annie clearly feels pressured by them, and agrees to meet Malik (Tevion Lanier, in a performance of beguiling, easy charm), who they’ve targeted as a potential “dad.” But as it turns out, neither Annie nor Malik – a very intelligent guy with a love for astronomy, who wants to escape his circumstances – are ready for anything like parenthood, and their alternately awkward/angry/affectionate scenes are lovely, and winningly played.
Along the way, Annie also is befriended by the school outcast, brainy Keera (Megan Napier in a performance of immense spirit and subtle comedy), a resilient, church-going girl with formidable coping skills and a troubled home life that she keeps mostly to herself.
Each and every student performance is superb, and there is added support from the two “adults” in the cast — Brandon Greenhouse as Antwoine, the handsome “Picasso of the tattoo parlor,” who inspires Annie in his own way, and Elana Elyce as Annie’s mom, embittered by her own past as a teenage mother.
Andrew Burden Swanson’s ingenious set features wonderful lighting by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, and Emma Cullimore’s costumes are straight out of the corridors of your local high school. Genuine sweetness (and pain) all around, and proof that The Yard is a project that deserves both audiences and financial support.