Play is a funny word. For “BLKS,” running through Jan. 28 at Steppenwolf Theatre, I wish it could be called a “serious” for this play digs well into relevant social issues in a deeply comedic manner. “BLKS” writer, the award-winning poet and playwright Aziza Barnes, is a treasure. She has penned a deeply personal work simultaneously hysterical and pointed, authoring a play with serious laughter on thought-provoking topics.
Four women, the very well-cast June (Leea Ayers), Octavia (Nora Carroll), Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) and Ry (Danielle Davis) have a day/night in their lives played out in New York City after Octavia discovers what could become a serious health issue. Well-cast, the four actress’s collective believability was genuine, and each got the audience very involved in their various situations. The seemingly frenzied battles between characters turned like a well-choreographed dance, so kudos to director Nataki Garrett (the “fight” scene near the end of Act Two is an uproarious treat).
The set is tight, designed well by Sibyl Wickersheimer, with specifically strewn sofas and pillows in a concert of color and different fabrics. Before the play opens you wonder why props are where they are and especially why there is a toilet in the corner (Octavia’s immediate Scene One health scare sends the entire play on a long and often-hysterical thread). Stage lighting enhances, marrying with the set as to please and not overwhelm. Great work by Marcus Doshi and staff.
Bravo for the work of versatile Steppenwolf ensemble member Namir Smallwood, who went from playing nefarious characters to cool nerd so well it was difficult to discern the roles were all being done by the same actor. A bow also is sent toward Kelly O’Sullivan (the character ‘“That B***h on the Couch”) whose entire stage time is spent setting her own land mines and stepping on them.
There were a couple lulls. No one roots for violence, but, uncomfortable as was the sexual assault scene, its depiction was not obvious as to what was going on. I’m confident there was a lot of care taken in the production of the scene, but a feeling came over me the woman (rescued by June, who, in turn, gets assaulted) was not fighting enough for our main characters to immediately understand she was being sexually assaulted. As it were, the police are called who “cannot/will not” show up, and that main point was carried off well. The play ends on a high note (literally and figuratively), but I wish the lights had faded out as the women were searching for “the bag.” Once the main plot’s string has been knotted neatly, the play could wrap up faster.
For those of you who have reached the end of this review, congratulations. I deliberately have left out the key element. It is vital the four main women are black, as their lives as black women are the whole point of “BLKS.”
There are no racially interchangeable roles in “BLKS.” This is not a play where one can have four white women play the key roles. No and never. “BLKS” is an experience played out in reality by black women and by black women of any sexual orientation. It’s a grossly engaging and soul-searching two hours and a highly recommended watch.
Here’s the “disclaimer/warning,” if you will: “BLKS” includes coarse language, sexualized violence, nudity, frank depictions of consensual sex and documentary footage of police brutality. May not be suitable for people younger than 18.
• Rick Copper is a writer, photographer, storyteller, part-time actor and comedian with a framed master’s degree from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and a loose Certificate of Completion sheet of paper from Second City’s Improv program. Published works include “Crystal Lake: incorporation of a city 1914-2014.”
WHEN: Through Jan. 28
WHERE: Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St., Chicago
COST & INFO: In poet Aziza Barnes’s ingenious portrait of a day in the life of four young women of color in New York City, “BLKS” explores the joy and anguish of growing up and out. Tickets start at $52. Tickets and information: 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org.