Do you like laughing?
Sitting on the edge of your seat?
Are you partial to characters so relatable that you can’t help but to advise them under your breath?
Then you should probably get your butt to BLKS.
Aziza Barnes doesn’t file down a single edge in this hilarious and torrid picture of three black millennial friends sharing an apartment. It is a ballsy self-portrait of the playwright that takes no precautions or requests. The digs and the dynamics of the cast create familiarity and nostalgia. Any child of the 90s worth their Cross Colours jacket is going to recognize the subtle homage to “Living Single”, and any millennial worth their conviction will draw “Broad City” parallels immediately. The Eartha Kitt-like voiceover in the opening sequence is foretelling of the humor and boldness to come.
The characters in BLKS are multi-faceted and a thrill to watch. We are introduced to Octavia (Nora Carroll) post-coitus, freaked out over what seems like a threat to her sexual health, and extremely reactive. Somewhat the token representation of a Social Justice Warrior, Octavia is the most fiercely feminist of the bunch, though her selfishness complicates the straightforwardness audiences expect from moral-centered characters. Her roommate June (Leea Ayers) is sort of the Charlotte of the group, coming off as hugely passionate and somewhat misdirected person. June’s story gives hints of a privileged, intensely measured background. Thrown in with her fly-by-night roommates she stands out, offering sound insight in the midst of chaos, even chaos she is responsible for. Though Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) is a witty and poignant character, she comes off more supplemental to the story than sharing the center of it. She is every black girl’s reaction to the absolution to white guilt, girlfriends in crisis, and navigating the landmine-strewn battlefield that interracial dating can sometimes be. Imani’s story, though not central to the plot is an important device, seeing that she is the only character who spends the majority of her story outside of the two main characters. The depth of her actions isn’t revealed until the end and brings the much-needed perspective to the way the characters around her relate to each other. She appears to have had the most contact with life and the least amount of protection from its ugliness.The dueling personalities of each character make for a compelling story that doesn’t force the audience to a specific conclusion, but to bring representation to a demographic that has long been misrepresented.
Black women. That is who this production is about. It does not shy away from the realities that accompany the identities, no matter how shamed or ugly. The stories here do not bow, make way, or apologize for a damn thing. They grow, bend, and swell with no regard for the comfort or sensibilities of their audience. These stories don’t feel like they are happening on a stage. In fact, the characters freely throw around expletives, have sex, and use the toilet as if they are inside of their messy apartment, and you are the lucky fly who landed on their wall.
BLKS begins with a dramatic series of loud, unfortunate events and a tension that seems to endlessly build. The commentary is uncomfortable, pointed, and necessary. The message of these collective moments is profound and long-lasting: endure. It’s a statement to the expectation of Black woman and an understated lesson in this production, but a powerful one. BLKS balance of solemn and light moments make a point about how radical carefreeness is when existing in a body people want to workhorse, abuse, or ignore. As the artistic director Anna D. Shapiro puts it, “ The miraculous coup that Aziza pulls off in this play is presenting these young women of color finding their way in the very particular heaviness of their world, while still managing to find joy and laughter and release in the universal bonds of friendship.” In this way Barnes makes every bit of humor both sweet relief and revolutionary.
We get a peek at the characters processing drama and trauma. We can see the dynamics of the relationships. We are so invested in the story that many audience members around me were leaning forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a single conclusion.
Neat conclusions, however, are not real life. BLKS is about giving us a gritty peek, and not a pretty performance. We don’t get solutions delivered at the end of the show tied up with a neat little bow. The end of the show is not the end of the story. We don’t get the resolution here. We only get what’s real. It is the sort of open-endedness that makes the story leap off of the stage and take root in your heart. Artfully written by Barnes and represented by these extremely talented actors, BLKS thrusts beautiful representations of everyday Black women into a spotlight that it refuses to give up.
It’s the kind of insistence that makes this play an absolute must see.
BLKS will be playing at the Steppenwolf through January 28, 2018.