Playwrights' Perspectives

Kirsten Greenidge on "Milk Like Sugar"

Until well into college I was a very good girl. I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, and most Friday nights I stayed in and watched "20/20" with my mom and sisters. On Saturday nights I usually babysat for my mom so she could go out. With her librarian friends. Who were all also divorcees and each home by the eleven o'clock news. So it was with great fascination that I sat down one day to a talk show -- I want to say it was Sally Jesse Raphael, but it could also have been Jenny or Ricky or Maury -- and listened to a very young teenager shyly but happily confess she was trying desperately to get pregnant. That she wanted a baby very badly. That she could not possibly wait until she got a job or her license or her diploma. When I saw this I was barely out of high school myself, and the idea was tantalizing and horrifying. It's a compulsion. Several of my plays have to do with sordid happenings with young girls, and I think it might have to do with my own ruminations about this tension between being a very good girl and then knowing there are girls out there who don't know any better and don't know enough to help themselves to better, even when better might be within reach.

Years after Sally and Jenny and Maury, I found myself commissioned to write a play about anything that caught my fancy while attending the Aspen Ideas Festival. If you haven't been to the Aspen Ideas Festival, you should go. It's like intellectual summer camp for very rich people. And varying degrees of famous people. Or, if you are like me, sponsored by other people who are in turn both famous and rich. Ideas fuel the Aspen Ideas Festival. There are big ideas, such as the effects of thermodynamics on our infrastructure and how that relates to sustainable communities in urban areas and basketweaving. Okay, I just made that up. I had trouble paying attention to some of the truly big ideas. What did keep my attention were some of the seemingly small and simple ideas that kept getting bandied about during the week. One such idea was about how to aid at-risk communities in the United States and abroad, which was to pay attention to the young girls in those communities. I am pretty sure around this time a study must have just been published that linked the age a woman (or girl) is when she has her first child directly to the health (socioeconomic and otherwise) of the community in which she lives. Several people said this during their sessions, even Bill Clinton.

So I let this idea ruminate with the "girl in trouble" scenario that seems to often run through my mind, and I got to writing. I wrote a ten-minute version as part of my commission requirement and that seemed to go over well. I churned out the starts of the full-length and that seemed to go okay, too, until I brought it in to one of my writing groups. One of the other writers was very impatient with the material. "I just don't care," was basically what she said. "Listen madam, Bill Clinton cares!" was what I wanted to yell back over the table, but I've been trained very well to Mona-Lisa-smile-it when receiving feedback (playwrights are taught this so we don't strangle people), so I just took the note and seethed. Obviously this person did not carry the Aspen Ideas Festival in her heart, where it is expected that if you don't care, at the very least you sympathize. I can't tell you how many sessions I went to so that I could be in the same room as Colin Powell where I did just that. So I took the note and I kept working, but the question kept nagging: who the hell cares?

And then I got to thinking way beyond Sally and Jenny and Maury, to Hester and Hedda and Nora: seemingly small, rather personal, rather singular problems poured into the skin of female characters that we have learned have a lot to teach us about a lot of rather human questions. That we care about, madam. I am not equating my characters with these, but I am likening. The moment any of us claims we do not care is the moment we cease to see what is human and valuable and savable in each other and in ourselves. The moment any of us claims we do not care is the moment we cease to be what it is that makes us human in the first place. So the play became my means of saying: I care. I care what happens and there is better within reach for each of us. There is.

--Kirsten Greenidge, July 2011

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