Chicago Theater Review: BLKS (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 19, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Nowadays it takes very little “disruption” to make a play a provocation. As Steppenwolf Theatre’s press release tersely puts it, “F**ked up sh*t happens.” Indeed it does — for over two hours in the tersely titled BLKS, a comedy of character crises by Aziza Barnes. Set in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the palpable present, director Nataki Garrett’s suitably strident world-premiere compassionately and unsparingly portrays four young black women, including three roommate-friends, across one pivotal day and night.

They’re on a roller-coaster learning curve of growing pains, all thrashed out in Sibyl Wickersheimer’s deliberately over-furnished apartment. And their journey counts more than any destination (another way of saying there’s little plot here and a ton of character revelation).

Barnes has a lot of “painful absurdity” to share in this “self-portrait of me and my best friends in our cripplingly early 20s.” Specifically, she harvests the heartbreak of preserving sisterly solidarity in a city of cross-purposes. Even after only two years, time can sardonically turn needy, “end-of-the-world” tragedies into “the joke’s on us.” These two acts deliver bittersweet discoveries through girl-talk gossip, contagious shouting, and bitchy disclosures.

Strongly recalling the feuding lesbian lovers in Rent, roommate Octavia (Nora Carroll) falls in and out of love with equally jealous Ry (Danielle Davis); their fights make them feel alive as any other passion. A mathematician with a lucrative job prospect at Deloitte, June (Leea Ayers) has man-trouble with unseen Jamal, so much so that she wears a white cotillion dress to feel desirable. The third BLK is Imani (Celeste M. Cooper), a would-be stand-up comic from Haiti who does feminist riffs on Eddie Murphy’s Raw material. In the play’s one through-line, Octavia, besides regularly losing jobs, must deal with a “mole on her clit” that may be skin cancer. As these Sex in the City-style friends handle Octavia’s clinical crisis and others (like the loss of a dead father’s DVD), they prove their mettle and more.

Out on the town, the ladies encounter the usual worms in the Big Apple — a Dominican Dude and would-be rapist, an ex-boyfriend, and, in contrast, a surprisingly sympathetic soul named Justin (Namir Smallwood), who reaffirms for June and Octavia the kindness of strangers in the night. Kelly O’Sullivan plays the (ofay) outsiders, namely That Bitch on the Couch (the proverbial “other woman”) and a Drunk White Woman whose brush with Imani yields a curiously redemptive mix of unintended prostitution and late-night soul-searching. There are also perfunctory allusions to “Black Lives Matter” eruptions — a first act assault that brings no help from any civil servant and a television reference to police executions; this triggers the women’s hapless rage over racist cops.

Charged with immediate nostalgia, BLKS is a set of snapshots yet to be processed into a final photo album. Perhaps like real life, nothing here lingers enough to make an impression, let alone reach a conclusion. The non-judgmental milieu that Barnes conjures up is too real to be processed — four African-American women “growing up and out” (to again quote the press release) and living life “by ear.”

The play’s defining events and turning points are more commented on than dramatized. Even the second act’s slow-motion “cat fight” feels more like a memory in the making than an actual slapfest. But at their best Barnes’s survivors seek the courage to share secrets in a place where “we don’t belong anywhere” and where “they don’t believe we are people,” just “aliens in a Petri dish.” Her quartet sometimes seem so interwoven it’s hard to imagine them apart or independent of the author’s declaration-rich dialogue. That’s also how tightly Garrett binds the playwright’s time capsule. More than most plays, we’re all in this together.

The nine characters and six performers convince, the actors forging as much freshness as a schematic, sometime sitcom, script permits. You may leave wanting more story (just as some may wish for more vowels in the title) but, no doubt, June, Octavia, Ry, Imani and their night visitors will fully fill viewers — BLKS and WHTS both.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
ends on January 28, 2018
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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