anti bullying theater
Milk Milk Lemonade, round the corner theater is made
Shrewd Productions is bringing back Milk Milk Lemonade. It was a success with both critics and audiences at last year's run at Vortex theater. Its latest incarnation looks forward to pulling in a larger audience. The play by New York playwrite Joshua Conkel is full of song and dance, absurdist moments and, yes, a talking chicken whose biggest dream is to become a stand-up comedian.
This storyline should be enough to draw in even the most timid theater goer, but the at the core of the play is a story about finding oneself, overcoming oppression and keeping internal hope alive. It is a sweet and, at times, dark look at the essence of homophobia and bullying. So while the feathered costumes and the ribbon dancing may be the triggers that pull you in, the message beneath the frills is what haunts you.
Bullying and oppression are common themes in the queer community. Outbreaks of suicide and overt violence have been brought to the forefront of the media. In many cases, the representation of queer protagonists in art, cinema and theater has a tendency to focus on shame, suicide and families that will not accept them. While all obviously valid reflections of personal experiences, Milk Milk Lemonade has turned this bully/protagonist paradigm on its head.
Centered around the sassy ribbon dancing Emory, director Jason Hays has created an interpretation of Conkel’s work emphasizing the joy of innocence, imagination and corresponding gender fluidity. Emory, this year recast with Michael Slefinger, has no shame. Hays explains his attraction to directing this piece: “When I read the show I thought ‘Wow, that’s me.' That was me when I was 11. I used to choreograph fantastic roller-skating performances in my drive way to Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All. I think [the character] is a lot of little boys out there. The power of Emory’s voice is strong, and he is confident. It’s inspiring.”
It is Emory’s confidence that motivates the change in those around him. Instead of the typical protagonist arch of discovery and change, it is the bully that grows, changes and learns to accept. But don’t be fooled, there is dark matter and it is omnipresent. Milk Milk Lemonade doesn’t leave you with lollipops and cheer, it tells you a real story—part violent and joyous.
From the inspired eye of stage manager Bryan Schneider, the show's set reflects a balance of wild childlike imagination and brutal reality. Set in a small rural town, the drab harshness of life is juxtaposed against Emory’s vivid fabrications of reality. An imaginary friend, a talking chicken and dreams of stardom all become the dominant reality for Emory and the audience. It is heavily stylized but still very relatable.
Joe Hartman returns to the cast this year as Linda the Chicken with an amazing costume and some compounded inspiration from last year’s run. He explains the universality of the play, “I love the fighting spirit of the play. All this stuff is pouring down around him and he keeps fighting through. The fact that he doesn’t identify his sexuality is inspiring because so many young children are told are given sexual identities before they even understand what those identities mean.”
Shannon Grounds, one of the founding members of Shrewd Productions and a returning Milk Milk Lemonade cast member, has been instrumental in bringing challenging theater to the Austin community for the past six years. She explains their motivation for performing Milk Milk Lemonade: “Shrewd tries to focus on the underrepresented voice, women, queers, etc… the voice of the outcast in a way… an exceptional person who is trapped in a model that doesn’t allow them to be who they are.”
With this motivation they are also hoping to pull in a community of people who can relate to that struggle by opening September 8th at the Hideout Theater—Pride weekend. Owing to the new cast members and new venue, the show has a fresh voice to it this run. While some of the dance routines will return and the message and impact remain the same, Hayes doesn’t want to do the same play as last year and is using the fresh talent to give this production new life.
Hartman elucidates why any audience should be compelled to come. “The play is seductively fun, I love theater that is seductively fun and then turns on you as an audience member and shows you something that you didn’t expect.”
Running September 8th through the 25th, I would strongly suggest getting your tickets now.