Theatre in Review

Tuesday, 26 December 2017 15:34

Absurdity, Treachery, Heartbreak....and Laughs in BLKS at Steppenwolf

Written by
) Nora Carroll (Octavia), Leea Ayers (June) and Celeste M. Cooper (Imani) in Steppenwolf’s production of BLKS by Aziza Barnes, directed by Nataki Garrett in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St ) Nora Carroll (Octavia), Leea Ayers (June) and Celeste M. Cooper (Imani) in Steppenwolf’s production of BLKS by Aziza Barnes, directed by Nataki Garrett in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St Michael Brosilow

BLKS, a new comedy premiering at Steppenwolf Theater, tracks three young black women sharing an apartment in New York City, through 24 hours laced with sex and romance. 

Packed with high drama and high jinx, this first play by Aziza Barnes makes for an entertaining show. It may sound like a black version of Sex in the City or Friends, and like them it is a comedy of errors. But it also operates on an altogether more serious plain, taking on issues of violence, and with a look at “gender fluid” and “queer” orientation in next generation black community. It is also a window into a world most white people like me can never see.

“This is a play by blk people and for blk people,” the playwright says a note to the audience, tucked into the program. ”I am inviting blk people to live fully here. Those on stage and off.”

Enjoining the audience – and specifically black people -  to her mission, Barnes also has a longer goal. “What's important to me is trying to understand humanity and doing something of consequence that doesn't hurt people—that liberates people,” as she said in a Vice interview this summer.

The play also comes with a very explicit audience advisory for coarse language, sexualized violence, nudity, and frank depictions of consensual sex – and, notably, for documentary footage of police brutality – the liberal use of the N- and F- words, which punctuate the dialog is not so different from the role that “Frickin” plays in contemporary Irish dramatic dialog.     

Barnes also says she wants the play to be funny, and in large measure it is. In this “day in the life” Barnes depicts herself and two friends, with Barnes presumably represented by the protagonist and "everyman" figure, Octavia (Nora Carroll ably carries off a demanding role) who is dithering over her romantic commitment to Ry (Danielle Davis), a self-assured lesbian with a stable job. When the play opens, Ry and Octavia are snuggling, and we are introduced to the two other roommates Imani (Celeste Cooper) and June (Leea Ayers), as they enter with a flourish.

You feel you know these characters and their lives, but what you won’t know until you see BLKS is how it feels to be them. Barnes says this is a play for black people, and that is true. Comments from predominantly black audience members in an after-show discussion generally expressed surprise at how “black” the play was, and a certain amount of discomfort at the use of the word “nigger” in front of non-black audience members. Those assessments also suggest the realism Barnes has going in BLKS.

BLKS also shows us how #BlackLivesMatter, male abuse and #MeToo play out in the lives of these young women – a dark and undeniable backdrop to their efforts to just live a life.   

I found the character of June the most delightful – a straight black professional woman constantly seeking romance, fending off abuse, and taking a position as a highly paid consultant at Deloitte. Leea Ayers's performance was terrific. Kudos to the supporting cast. Namir Smallwood is excellent as he plays three characters (Dominican Dude, Justin, Sosa) in different scenes, and is thoroughly convincing in each, particularly the nerdy Sosa. (I didn’t realize he was all three guys!) And Kelly O’Sullivan plays somewhat thankless roles as That Bitch on the Couch, and Drunk  White Woman – foils to the action, but still, we like her.

Barnes is a rising voice in the poetry world with a popular podcast and award winning poems that explore black, queer, and feminine worlds. BLKS, her first theatrical effort, features fully fleshed out characters, real people that you will enjoy seeing, and will care about.

Artistic Director Anna Shapiro says with BLKS, she was “handed a script that feels both audaciously new and yet, strangely familiar.” It truly does explores the joy and anguish of growing up, and without question Barnes's playwriting marks the arrival of an original voice on stage. 

A stellar cast has, under the direction of Nataki Garett, brought this play to life, in part through workshopping at Steppenwolf. Barnes's poetic voice adapts very well to the stage, and the characters' language is both natural, yet musical and thoughtfully cadenced.

Producing BLKS is part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s mission to be “where great acting meets big ideas” and “to engage audiences in an exchange of ideas that makes us think harder, laugh longer, feel more” and “develop new plays, new audiences and new artists for the future of American theater.”

With all that back story and context, the question remains, “Is the play any good? Should I see it?” Yes it is good. And you may want to consider this in deciding whether to go: Steppenwolf has become a reliable curator of theater for us, and you are well advised not to miss out on something carrying its endorsement. So BLKS comes recommended. 

This is also a perfect antidote to the Christmas Carols dominating Chicago stages right now, and a good destination for a New Years Eve date. Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 January 2018 11:51
Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.  



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