Malika Oyetimein is an artist to watch. Last year, CityArts placed her on its 2016 Future List, and a glance at her burgeoning career tells us why – she’s already directed 11 plays, including the acclaimed production of Bootycandy at INTIMAN, and is set to complete her MFA at the University of Washington with the renowned director and educator Valerie Curtis-Newton.

Earlier this month, ArtsWest Development Officer Laura Owens sat down with Malika and asked a range of questions, sparking many thoughtful insights and observations from the Milk Like Sugar director about the play and the world it brings to light.

Read the interview below and visit the Milk Like Sugar page on our site to learn more and buy tickets.

You’re currently pursuing your directing MFA at the University of Washington. What aspects of the program attracted you, and why have you chosen to pursue a MFA?

Two major things brought me to UW: the rigor of the program and the head of the program: Valerie Curtis-Newton. I knew that my career was on a path of growth when I was in Philadelphia but I also knew that I needed more training. My undergraduate degree is in communications and a lot of things I’ve learned, I’ve learned by assistant directing at equity theaters. I had a lot of hands on training at professional theaters, but I needed opportunities to direct, not assistant direct, but direct: solely direct and have my vision come to fruition, or not. And what is so great about the program at UW is we are required to direct every single quarter we’re here. That’s kind of amazing when you’re a young director. So ultimately I came to UW to test my vision and my own personal rigor.

How do you feel your directing style has changed or evolved since entering the program?

I’ve let a lot of my fear about “getting it right” go. I can’t say that I’m past fear because no one is past fear, but I use my fear differently. I use it as a motivator and I no longer let fear paralyze me from making really hard decisions. I feel as though I am a more self-possessed director. I feel more confident, and I also know fear isn’t something I should let rule my decisions. I acknowledge fear is in the room and I can let it go now. That’s something that my mentor, Valerie [Curtis-Newton], has taught me – and also the confidence to get in a room and do the play. I feel like I’ve gained that because in the last three years I’ve directed 8 shows, which is incredible.

In an interview with Encore, you mentioned that the most crucial element of any show is the director’s vision. As a director, how do you arrive at your own vision for a show? Does it come to you as you read a play for the first time, or does it develop during production meetings and during rehearsals?

I know vision is crucial. Vision and drive are crucial. The thing I’m still learning – I’m still in process – but I’m learning that when you read a play there’s often this gut, this gut punch or feeling of “I have to direct this play,” or “I need to tell this story.” It’s all about the story-telling and it’s all about: why this story, now, for this audience? So, when I first read a play – when I’m offered to direct something, or I’m looking at plays for school, or for plays to pitch to theaters – I’m looking for that feeling. That feeling that I can’t quite explain.

From there everything else evolves. In subsequent readings of the play I’m starting to let the world grow, let the themes manifest, and let all of the nuances just kind of seep out. That is a process that goes through many different iterations, because it goes from that gut feeling with you in a room reading a play (and it’s me so I’m probably knitting and reading a play) and then all of a sudden there are all these new people who arrive. They’re the collaborators, the designers, costume, set, light and sound telling me “Oh, this thing that you love in the play – I can enhance it this way.” All of a sudden I’ve got these playmates and, if I’m fortunate enough, I’ve got the playwright in the room telling me why they wrote the thing I have a gut reaction to. They’re illuminating the story for me and then I get to cast more collaborators. It really is a collaborative process that grows and with every new person, every new playmate, every new teammate my vision gets more and more defined. It gets clearer it gets less about a gut feeling and the story-telling starts to really just paint itself out.

After Mat [ArtsWest Artistic Director Mathew Wright] offered you Milk Like Sugar, what made you accept the project?

I accepted Milk Like Sugar because I’m hard pressed to find another story that centers on three young girls of color in an inner city. Kirsten Greenidge writes their points of view in a way that is so heart-breakingly beautiful. She has a mastery of the emotions and the complexities of the lives of these young black girls.

Nastacia Guimont (Margie), Allyson Lee Brown (Annie), and Jay O’Leary (Talisha). Photo by John McLellan.

Is Milk Like Sugar the first production you’ve directed at ArtsWest? If so, what excites you about directing for ArtsWest?

Milk Like Sugar is my first production at ArtsWest. It’s exciting because Mathew got his MFA in Philly and I’m from Philly, so the Philly connection is in the house! I’m excited that ArtsWest is a family theater company. It really runs like – from what I can see – a family, and they all take care of each other. I know that’s the type of team I want to be a part of to help make Milk Like Sugar be the best it can be. A team of people who can speak my language and understand what I’m passionate about and is really interested in not doing a “perfect show,” but a real show with a real message and a strong, strong point of view behind it. That’s what the folks at ArtsWest seem like so I’m down for that.

Why is Milk Like Sugar an important story to tell? What conversation do you hope it will begin?

There are so many negative ideas about what it means to be a Black or Latino girl growing up in America, but no one is searching for the root of these ideas. People say, “They’re fast. They’re loose. They’re sluts,” and more without understanding nor care. No one can be bothered to understand why these girls are hyper-sexualized and everyone wants to talk about the symptoms of a disease and not the disease.

Milk Like Sugar shows exactly why some of our inner city youth are doing the things they’re doing. It shows you in a real way that draws you into not just their stories, but their human complexities. This story is so important because when we do talk about the complexities of inner city or urban life it’s always from a boy’s standpoint. It’s always about the young black boy who only had the options of basketball, football, or music to get him out of the hood. We understand that as a concept – “Hoop dreams”. Yet, what is the female equivalent? What is the thing that gets young black girls out of the hood? We don’t even investigate why they don’t have the options. I hope Milk Like Sugar begins the conversation of how we save all of our children from a never-ending cycle of poverty.

What are you currently reading? What play/playwright do you recommend to the patrons at ArtsWest?

I’m actually reading two different books. I’m reading “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” by Dr. Joy DeGruy and I’m also reading Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Those are the two pieces of text I’m reading right now because I’m also writing my thesis for Fucking A, so there’s not a lot of recreational reading going on around here. But those are the two books on my night stand. They’re heavy, but I think they’re very necessary and very much part of the conversation that Milk Like Sugar is attempting to have as well.

Milk Like Sugar plays March 2 – March 25, 2017 at ArtsWest. Visit the Milk Like Sugar page to learn more and buy tickets.