Chicago’s got campy ’MilkMilkLemonade’ through Sunday

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 12, 2011

Given the ubiquity of the It Gets Better Project, launched last fall by sex columnist and author Dan Savage with his husband Terry Miller, the struggles LGBTQ youth face in their schools, with their families and in their churches -- leading some youth to consider ending their lives -- have never been pushed to the forefront as vocally as they are today.

Most recently, the It Gets Better book, featuring essays from such notable personalities as President Barack Obama, author David Sedaris and television host Ellen DeGeneres, has even hit the New York Times Bestseller List, confirming the undeniable stamp the campaign has left on pop culture in recent months.

But for those of you looking for queer-positive inspiration in a bit of a different form, a unique "children's play definitely not for children" is just wrapping up its well-received run in Chicago with another weekend of shows, concluding Sunday, April 17, produced by the Pavement Group at the Chicago Dramatists.

The play, titled MilkMilkLemonade and written by up-and-coming out playwright Joshua Conkel, spotlights 11-year-old Emory (played by Matt Farabee), an effeminate and slightly eccentric ribbon dance and jazz music-loving boy who dreams of one day leaving his rural surroundings behind for the urban bliss of "Malltown." Away from the taunts of other boys at school and the criticism of his cancer-stricken Nanna, Emory dutifully rehearses his ribbon routines with the hopes of one day launching a stage career via the television show "Reach for the Stars."

About that talking chicken...

Conkel's script was originally workshopped by the Pavement Group, under the direction of the company's artistic director David Perez, some two years ago. Director Cassy Sanders -- who, incidentally, attended school with both Conkel and Perez at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle -- was there to see the script read and was charmed by Conkel's pop culture-laden, whimsical-yet-wry writing style.

After the show was met with critical acclaim in its New York and Los Angeles incarnations, even being named the "best off-off-Broadway show of 2009" by New York Press, the show was set to return to the Windy City. When the Pavement Group approached Sanders to direct the production, she said she was honored.

"Not only do I enjoy Josh's writing and style but the story itself is really important not only for our community but I think it speaks specifically to our generation," Sanders told EDGE. "[The show] talks about gender and sexuality in a new, kind of fresh way that's really fun, still poignant and not stale."

One aspect of the show that lends itself to a more fresh take on the "after-school special"-like tone that youth-centric shows often have is the gender-blind casting that Conkel's script calls for. Specifically, Sanders revealed, the script encouraged her to "not be a pussy" in casting. Sanders followed that advice by casting a male actor (John Zinn) as Nanna, a female actor (Jessica-London Shields) as Emory's main schoolyard adversary Elliot and a human actor (Cyd Blakewell) as the talking chicken wannabe stand-up comic.

Oh yes, there's a talking chicken -- Emory's closest friend whom he turns to as a bit of an escape from the struggles of his day-to-day life. Between this, his ribbon rehearsals and his love for music and the arts, he finds an outlet for his creativity. His strategy for dealing with loneliness, Sanders said, is something likely relatable for fellow Generation Xers and Yers in particular -- whether or not they were dealing with struggles related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even without a friend to relate to, we could turn to buddies like Clarissa to explain it all or, later on, for Angela Chase to reflect our angst.

"Watching Emory practice a ribbon dance solo in the middle of the play is hilarious but it also feels true," Sanders said. "Though I may not have been a little boy struggling with my sexuality, I definitely choreographed some dances in my backyard. I think a lot of people did. You laugh because you know you weren't alone in that. That's what makes this such a great story."

Though the show has received almost universally positive reviews, Sanders said ticket sales have been somewhat slow -- a fact that, though disappointing, has not deterred the show's cast and crew whom she described as dedicated and committed to Emory's story -- one they truly believe in.

Heading into its final stretch, Sanders hoped the Chicago theater community would come out and take a chance on MilkMilkLemonade, a John Waters-like show with a lot of heart -- not to mention four dance numbers and a set intended to look as though it were "designed by a classroom of third graders" (described by the Chicago Reader as "a vaudeville pop-up book").

The Pavement Group's MilkMilkLemonade plays the Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue, through Sunday, April 17, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Visit to learn more about the show.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.