Story and Images by Sonnet Moore
This week Columbus State University’s Department of Theatre opens their production of Milk Like Sugar -- a play that many would label as problematic, simply based on how the black women in the script are represented. The discord surrounding this play was jarring at first, so getting a better understanding of the process was the first step for our team. I knew we had a difficult task in deciphering how to share this story and support the students of color in the CSU Theatre Department.
Our team at The Columbusite decided it was best that I interview the show’s director, Beth Reeves. What I received from Beth was grace, honesty, and assurance that this show, and more importantly, these students, were being taken care of. Beth Reeves has this way about her that makes you feel at home by just speaking with her for a few minutes. The conversation went from an anxious interview to a beautiful connection.
Read on to discover Reeves’ incredibly intentional approach to Milk Like Sugar, and enjoy an inside look into this extraordinary director, actor, teacher, advocate, and Human.
Q: Tell me about your first impression of the script.
A: I wasn’t familiar with the script and I wasn’t familiar with the playwright. When it was first presented to me, I read the script once, after Dr. Dooley asked me to direct it. Usually it’s the opposite. You choose a play that you really love and you direct it or someone asks you to direct, you read, and then you say yes. The opposite happened. He said, “Would you like to direct?” and I said, “Sure!” and he said, “Here’s the script,” I said, “Okay!!!” I read the script once and thought, “I can’t direct this. I can’t do this. I can direct, but I can’t direct this.”
I was concerned about the representation of black people. Even though in my day job, with running outreach programs, I work with the Talisha’s and the Margie’s and the Annie’s. I don’t want to say I was embarrassed, but it just worried me and I was afraid to direct this script. So, I read it again-- I read it a total of 13 times and I said, “I’ve got to see some form of black beauty in this.”
Q: So, how did you finally find that within the difficulty of sharing this story?
A: I was fascinated with Malik’s character, who has a fascination with the stars. His character is trying to help Annie, specifically, to get out. I don’t want to give too much away, but I thought that it would be cool to somehow visually and aesthetically tie in West African themes. Be it music, proverbs, poetry. Once I went on that, my process just took off. It felt like I was writing a thesis actually. Once the “Ah-ha!” moment went off I started brainstorming on the central image that I wanted, and African drums that I hear transitioning between scenes.
Q: Can you tell me more about your connection to the girls in this story?
A: I have an outreach program that I run with The Springer that works with the demographics within this play. I said to myself, if I put this play down, then I am being a hypocrite because I am walking away from the kids that I work with.
I spoke to a good friend of mine and he said, “You can do this!” and I said, “NO, I can’t,” and then assured me again, “Yes, you can.” It wasn’t until after I accepted the directing job that I heard the concerns for the students of color in the department. I wasn’t familiar with the script and like I said, once I read it that thirteenth time, with the idea of the stars in my head, that’s when I was able to pull elements in.
Q: How have you helped cultivate a shift to trust the process with the students involved with this production?
A: I had to remind the students that, just as any other culture, there are different shades of African Americans. Something that I write in my directors note is that people keep saying “those kind of girls” or “those type of girls” “they are ghetto” or “they are hood”, but really they are us, which really hits the “I am, We are” honestly, not sweeping anything under the rug and being very transparent with them.
In one of our character workshops, I had them sit around the entire rehearsal hall and they would write out their frustration. I have it with me and it will remain safe with me, but basically they got to vent. I created one proverb that you’ll see at the very end of the show that is based off of the students’ frustrations. I had to make sure it wasn’t too in your face. I wanted to be certain that these students felt as though their voice was heard. I told them that these characters were girls who had just been misguided and they don’t know about where they came from. I truly believe that once you know where you came from, you’ll know where you’re going. Some days we were at rehearsals and I could see they were angry and you know, that’s alright. I did an activity with them where I took them on a childlike journey, because for me Milk Like Sugar is about babies having babies. Throughout that activity, a shift happened where I no longer babied them, which was the equivalent to the idea where for some reason, these girls’ innocence had been taken away and literally I could see the lightbulb go off.
Q: What challenges do you think that this show presents to the audience? CSU’s audience and our Columbus audience?
A: Something that I think is very interesting is that this play is written by a black woman, directed by a black woman, written for black actresses, and about black characters. Very seldom do you find a piece of work where there are three girls coming from a rough environment, basically trying to battle a system that is created for them to fail, who are classified as “hood” and “ghetto” put on stage where they are the protagonists. That never happens. You may have one play where the supporting character happens to be a black girl, or maybe you do non-traditional casting. Never have I come across a script where you have three black girls who are the main characters. Something that I am afraid of that is challenging is that we will have a primarily white audience see this, in terms of the fact that they are not familiar with their culture. Being a black actress, I am very mindful of the roles that I will accept. I don’t want to take roles where I feel that people are laughing at me or where I am being depicted as some sort of caricature. I think with what we are infusing such as proverbs and transitions within the play, people will get the hint. On top of that, I had a dramaturg team do research, so we are trying to set the tone for people before they see the show. So, really, the demographics with the audience. I told the cast we still have to give a good show. The themes are universal. It is about sisterhood, love, laughter, frustration, dreams, breaking generational cycles. So while you may not come from the same background, you may have more in common than you think.
Q: Were there any other challenges?
A: This is my first time as a director. So another challenge for me personally was managing a full-time job, being in Fences, directing this show, and trying to uplift the students of color.
Q: How has being an actor first helped you within this process? I can imagine that being an actor first gives you the perspective of where these students are with this script.
A: I consider myself a coach. I am an actor before I am a director. There are going to be moments where I mess up, there are going to be moments where I say, “I don’t know.” I didn’t go into this thinking I knew exactly what this show was going to be. I am an organic director. As long as it’s natural and motivated, do it. With this particular piece, you have to direct with your heart--you can’t direct with your head. You can’t. It is more of a feeling. The fact that we are infusing West African Culture puts it in your heart. So as a director, I am less mechanical and more heart. There are moments where we infuse African drums and that is her ancestors trying to whisper to her to tell her which route to take and she ignores it.
It’s so hard to explain, but it’s a feeling. Just like acting, I act from my heart and not from my head. The way I approached this is that I am their coach and I tell them it’s game time. They love it. I tell them this, “As frustrated as you are with the way that we are depicted in this script, I want you to take that frustration and put it in your character. Don’t worry about how you look or what people will say. I’ve got you. I mean we’ve got a dramaturgy team, you have me, Suli is AWESOME with the light design and supporting the story that I wanted to tell. I’ve got you.” I asked them to take that frustration and put it in their character. On Wednesday, they left everything on that stage and I said, “Well dammit, we’ve got a show!”
Q: How has this felt for you personally?
A: I feel like I held two hats with this job. Directing a show and uplifting these students. Carrying a full time job and being the only black woman teaching in the theatre department. I’m holding true to my culture, but making sure, too, that with the West African element, I am still making the script make sense. So, this has been challenging. There are some nights I go home crying, but like my dad says, “Put one foot in front of the other.” I am the kind of person who says, “If this doesn’t make sense, just tell me!”
My best friend in the entire world, Jonathan Perkins, is the voice of the ancestor. He is the reason I am doing this script. He encouraged me to do this and said, “Who else could do this script?” I said to him, “But look how it makes us look!” and he said, “Then take care of it. You know these girls. You teach them, you coach them, you mentor them.” I went home after that conversation and started listening to African drums while reading the script because I knew I had to find Africa in this script. I want to know, and we all want to know that these girls are going to be okay. The ending, I hope, puts a period at the end of the sentence. That’s what I am trying to do. I can’t change the ending. I can’t change the characters. But I want to take care of the fact that in my heart I know they will be okay.
Q: What are some positive things you’ve taken away from this? Clearly your connection with this cast is incredible, because they’re incredible Humans. What are your favorite things about being involved with this production?
A: I’ve come full circle. In 2008, in the same place in the Black Box theatre, Rearcous Smith directed Fences that I just got finished doing at the Springer-- that was my first show at CSU. I feel him whispering to me all the time. Of course, he has been gone for almost 12 years, but I feel him whispering to me. Things will come to me in the middle of the night! It’s almost like I graduated CSU, to just come back to CSU for grad school, and then to come back once again to teach and direct. I just feel like I was assigned to this. I feel like my ancestors are happy. I feel like no one else was supposed to direct this script but me. As heavy and as challenging as it’s been, it is so damn fulfilling. I just feel like nobody else could’ve thought of these concepts but me, you know?
Q: What would you like for the audience to understand upon coming to this production?
A: When I try to explain what I am trying to do with this show, people don’t understand it. I don’t want to call it a play, I want to call it an experience. From the moment you walk in there will be times where you laugh, there will be times where your heart is racing, there will be times where you think who are my ancestors and am I listening? Am I following my path? If anything, I want people to ask questions. At one point, I coached Kiki Ellis, who plays Annie, and told her I wanted her to think of the entire stage as a chess board. I had her learn how to play chess--because it’s life! That’s what life is like. So I had them add a chess board on the set. Because honestly, when do you see a chess board in a black household? But that’s all Annie is doing. She’s constantly thinking, “Do I follow my friends? Do I not follow my friends? Do I follow religion? Do I follow what mom did? Society is telling me to fail