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Window of Opportunity: Kirsten Greenidge's Milk Like Sugar

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. […] Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don't teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors — not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” 
— author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as quoted in Beyoncé’s “Flawless”

The spark of Kirsten Greenidge’s play Milk Like Sugar came from an intersection of ideas; the stories around the rumored Gloucester pregnancy pact hit the news the same year that Greenidge visited Aspen Ideas Festival. The year Greenidge attended, a theme of the conference was investing in women, particularly young women, and expanding the range of options open to them. Though the play Greenidge wrote bears little outward resemblance to the circumstances and events in Gloucester, the conversations merged as coverage of the town emphasized the area’s economic depression as being a cause of the high teen pregnancy rate, and Greenidge found herself reflecting on the larger question of young women, their access to opportunity, and their ability to make their own choices.

The intersection of class and opportunity is a theme that Greenidge has explored across her career. When she was in college studying to be a teacher, she remembers a story that a mentor shared about visiting schools: “He asked a group of kids from underserved communities where knowledge comes from,” Greenidge recalls. “They said, ‘It comes from your teacher’ — it comes from outside of you, so you get it from someone else — and it all depends on who your teacher is. Then he asked students from a middle class community where knowledge comes from. Those students said, ‘It comes from hard work, and you have to acquire it.’ Then he asked students from a privileged community, a private school, where knowledge comes from, and they said, ‘It comes from within you.’ That blew my mind.”

Milk Like Sugar cast
During the time Greenidge wrote the play, the experiences of young women she was mentoring herself shaped its content. “I taught public speaking,” Greenidge remembers, “so a lot of those young women’s pieces were about themselves, about the choices they had made to go to school while their friends in their community — who they had gone to high school with — were making different choices. So a lot of them were trying to make sense of ‘I’m here, but a lot of people around me aren’t doing so well.’”

While the play is in dialogue with current statistics and public policy, making a sociological point was never the focus for Greenidge; while teen pregnancy may be a subject of the play, it is also a lens through which we can see the larger picture of youth, gender, and opportunity. “When the play premiered, it had an all African American cast,” Greenidge says, “and someone said ‘the [black] teen pregnancy rate has gone down, so what do you say about that?’ So I said, ‘The play is not about young black teenage pregnancies. It’s about young women and their choices, and whether they feel empowered to make choices that they feel are right for them. It’s not about whether or not teenage pregnancy rates are up or down.”

In Milk Like Sugar, Greenidge explores what options are open to young women today, and asks what role we all share in how their lives are shaped. “All these young women are in a system that makes it very hard for them to make choices,” Greenidge says. “In the play, what the character Margie has chosen for herself is to be a mother at a very young age, and whether I agree or disagree with that, the way we have set up our education system and economy in our society right now has made it very difficult for her to do that. I’m not sure about how — as a person, as a citizen — I feel about the world making life for her not easy.”

— CHARLES HAUGLAND


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