Sexual awakenings on a chicken farm
American culture is paradoxical. We seem to be increasingly health conscious and savvy, yet obesity numbers continue to rise. We seem to be striving toward a greener earth, yet gas prices continue to skyrocket. And more in the context of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s production of MilkMilkLemonade, we seem to be getting a more progressive society, yet we elected a heavily conservative Congress in the latest election. Everything is not what it seems, and that was the biggest takeaway for me when I went to see this play.
Even before the play began, I could guess from the program that it would not be a traditional play. It had mazes and word searches and a whole section explaining gender neutrality in elementary language. And I knew I was right when the actors entered the colorful, farm-themed set like it was a drag show. Not to mention three out of the five male-only cast members were dressed in drag.
The play focuses on Emory (junior acting major Ben Mathews), a flamboyant fourth grader, who lives on a chicken farm and has dreams of becoming a Broadway star. Mathews plays a great version of a confident yet confused little boy whose sexuality and gender is constantly being questioned or challenged by outside forces such as his Nana (junior acting major Wesley T. Jones), a robust Bible-quoting, sickly older woman, or by Elliot (junior musical theatre major Jake Brinskele), Emory’s “creepy” neighbor.
However, Emory finds solace in his Barbie-esque doll, Starlene, and his best friend Linda (junior directing major John Moriarty), who happens to be a chicken. Together they dream about escaping to “Mall Town” where Emory can audition for a televised talent show called Reach for the Stars — a show so dream-inducing that every time Emory says the show’s name, he hilariously sings it in an overly eager pose while a single spotlight shines on him. I can still hear him singing it as I am writing this.
But his dreams are crushed by his Nana, who tells him to stop dancing and acting like a girl. Instead, she suggests Emory play with the “creepy” neighbor, Elliot, who is more butch and plays baseball. She takes Starlene away and reminds Emory of processing day, the day on which all the breathing clucking chickens are turned into frozen Tyson chicken nuggets and McDonald’s Happy Meals, also known as the day Linda dies. Emory immediately goes to warn Linda, and they hasten their plans to escape.
Amidst all of Emory’s panic, Elliot shows up on the farm and instantly starts making fun of Emory. At this point, the work of the playwright, Joshua Conkel, really shines through. The irrationality of bullying is perfectly exemplified during this exchange. Emory questions why Elliot has pyromaniac tendencies to which he responds, “Fire’s cool. You’re a faggot.”
The audience is left wondering why, if Elliot is so disgusted by Emory, he continues to stay on the farm. When asked to leave by Emory, Elliot refuses to go. Soon, Elliot starts letting his guard down and takes a rest from being on the offense. Emory and Elliot talk about their passions and fears, something Elliot is not used to as he describes his emotions being stuck in his skull and having an evil twin inside of him shifting things around. Then — get ready for it — Elliot suggests they go to the barn and have sex, presumably something they have done before. Rough life for a fourth grader, eh?
Metaphors are all around us at this point in the play. Elliot and Emory represent different experiences of the gender and sexuality spectrum. There is Elliot, whose sexuality is ambiguous; he is very confused about his feelings toward Emory. And then there is Emory, who is a confident character. But these two characters exist in the same world, a world in which society treats queer people as a different race with different rights than the rest of the population.
Coming back to the anxiety of processing day, Emory attempts to hide Linda from Nana. He insists on her hiding underneath the house, where a poisonous spider bites Linda. Linda starts foaming at the mouth and slowly reacting to the venom running through her system. Linda’s future is not looking too good, with or without the processor.
Linda runs out from the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Pun intended. Nana chases Linda down but is unable to catch her because of her condition, so she gets Elliot to do it — an action that seems to betray both Emory and Linda, though it was, in fact, inevitable; Linda would have died with or without the help of Elliot. Linda is placed into the processor, and just like that, the symbol for innocence and acceptance is turned into a Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich.
Overall, the play was highly entertaining. It engaged with actors, music, lights, a disco ball, a fog machine — you name it — in a successful and effortless manner.