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Inside MILK LIKE SUGAR:
An Interview with Actor Nastassja Baset
by Sarah Totora
“Oh! I like this—not having the answers and I’m okay with it.”
SARAH: Tell us about yourself. What do you want the world to know about you (in a few words).
NASTASSJA: In a few words? I am super awesome!
NASTASSJA: Clearly! And I love to perform. I love to create.
SARAH: Is theatre your go-to mode for creative expression?
NASTASSJA: Yes, theatre is my go-to mode, but I like to dabble in dance, singing. I like to paint, I like to draw.
SARAH: Your character, Annie, is our de facto guide through MILK LIKE SUGAR. How would you describe her?
NASTASSJA: It’s so hard, because Annie is not written out—she’s in the poetry. She is in search of herself. She knows who she is, but maybe she wants to be a different way. And she’s just now figuring that out—we’re witnessing that. She’s so open, optimistic. I love her because she has that side that I wish I had—that openness, that vulnerability to just be.
SARAH: Like Annie, you were born and raised in a big city (Detroit). What were the worst and best parts of growing up in an urban environment?
NASTASSJA: Growing up, I didn’t want to have a Detroit accent. I felt it wasn’t anything that could benefit me in the real world. My uncle always said, “You have to be 10 times better than the next white person.” So it was like, “You have to adjust. We understand you grew up in this environment, you have these circumstances, but you have to look like this in order for you to get a job, or in order for you to be taken seriously.” So there was a lot of pushing away and running, just trying to get out of that urban environment.
But Detroit was a safe place for me. I grew up with danger around me, but my mother kept me sheltered—enough to be aware of it, but not involved in it. So we knew about around the corner, somebody selling such-and-such, or there’s something going on over here, or we heard so-and-so got shot, but it wasn’t close to me. When I got to high school, we lived in the hood hood. My mother was afraid of us walking up the street at night. But because I wanted to escape, I didn’t want to be limited to that fear. So at a young age, when my mother couldn’t do it, I was like, “Well, I’m gonna get on the bus. I’ll go. I can do it on my own.” I didn’t want to feel scared of where I lived. So even though I was running away, my running away still helped me to connect with what was around me in a different way.
SARAH: In MILK LIKE SUGAR, Annie is faced with some difficult choices that inspire her to see her world anew. Have you had that experience in your own life—something that opened your eyes and changed your mind about the way things are?
NASTASSJA: That happens to me a lot—that evolution. My mother put us in the church, like everyday. Sunday school, bible study, choir, rehearsal, teen night, and I was okay with that because that was all my mother exposed us to. I was very devoted to learning about becoming closer with God, and really getting deep into what Christianity was about. But I was always curious about how other people lived. When I got to college, I stopped going to church, and what I discovered was peace—a peace I had thought I was learning to get in the church—I was learning to have it in myself without needing that external thing.
It was heartbreaking, though, because I was also learning more about myself as a black person. For all my life, I knew I was black, I knew I had to work 10 times harder, I had to be the best if I was going to be anything, but there was another part of my blackness that my mother, my family, and my church never exposed me to: the simple fact that “the church clap” is connected to our African heritage of syncopated rhythms and polyrhythm—that has maintained itself through the rhythm of black music. When I was learning all about that, it made me feel betrayed by the church a little bit. I was like, “Why don’t you all teach this?” So when I started to have that kind of revelation in terms of finding peace and learning about my heritage and my history, then that one way that I was going down, that path of becoming the pastor’s wife, was no longer relevant. That was an “aha!” moment. It was like, “Oh! I like this—not having the answers and I’m okay with it.”
SARAH: Why is theatre important to you?
NASTASSJA: Theatre gives me the feeling of…well, going back to church: in the Church of God in Christ, in particular, they have this thing called going to the altar. First, the preacher preaches, then he tones the bell while calling and responding with the congregation, then they start playing music along with him, and then he eventually calls out to the audience for those that need to be saved to come to the altar. When they come to the altar, he lays his hands on them, and they have to believe with all their hearts that the Lord Jesus has saved them. Once they believe that, they’re saved, and when they talk in tongues, that’s like confirmation that they have been saved, completely and totally. When you go to the altar, you’re laying your burdens down, you’re confessing, you’re giving, you’re telling the Spirit, “I need to be saved, I need to be healed, I need to be forgiven.” That’s what I think about theatre—it’s this space of give and take. For an actor, you are able to immerse yourself in a character, and getting to know that character and feel what that character is experiencing—in many ways, it may touch your own personal life. That’s why I love Annie—because I’m able to see the openness and the vulnerability of her, and it challenges me to experience that so that I can channel it for this character, but more importantly to have that for my own life. I think that theatre is a healing space, not only for the audience seeing it, but also for the actor and those involved.
SARAH: Any dream roles on your bucket list?
NASTASSJA: I would love to do an action film. I want to become a superhero and fight! And I just want to walk on the red carpet with Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett; we don’t have to do a movie together—just let me walk. I also want to finish writing my own one-woman show. It’s called IN FEAR OF HER REFLECTION, and it highlights my process through learning to accept my reflection and embrace it and love it—how I express myself, and not being afraid of that expression.