Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Jan. 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If network television weren’t censored, Aziza Barnes’ “BLKS” could easily turn up as a sitcom, In fact, it probably would be considered suitable for cable nowadays even with all the explicit sex and x-rated language.
This is the award-winning poet’s first play, and according to the program, it’s about herself and her friends: three black women in their 20s sharing a New York apartment in 2015 and trying to figure out where they belong in the world. Each one suffers a crisis in the course of 24 hours, and they also share a disastrous night out clubbing.
While the situations are contemporary, the structure is schematic, and the style of director Nataki Garrett and the actors strikes me as a throwback to manic sitcoms with hysterical characters shouting at each other most of the time. Yes, there are moments of insight and poignancy, as well as justified outrage against a white world that treats them like “animals,”but Barnes’ main goal is high-octane comedy–even if it involves laughing through the tears.
The first source of humor is Octavia’s (Nora Carroll) freak out. She’s just finished making it with her girlfriend and film-making partner, Ry (Danielle Davis), when she finds a mole on the most sensitive part of her genitals. Panic ensues, Haitian roommate Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) dashes off to the store for unneeded bandages, and Octavia has a screaming fit because Ry doesn’t care enough to take a look at the mole when asked.
The off-again on-again relationship between Octavia and Ry continues through the two-plus hours with the jealous Tavi discovering Ry at a club with That Bitch On The Couch (Kelly O’Sullivan), who is white, and Ry begging the volatile Tavi, who alternates between craving attention and pushing her away, to tell her what level of commitment she wants.
With Ry otherwise engaged, That Bitch and Imani start to hook up, but the former has issues about being insensitive towards black people, and the latter is more focused on her stand-up gig using Eddie Murphy’s “Raw.” Later, she has a meltdown when her DVD of it goes missing, and we learn that it was a point of connection between her and her dying father.
The third roommate, June (Leea Ayers), has a math degree and a job offer from Deloitte that she doesn’t hesitate to remind the unemployed other two about. But when we first see her earlier in the day, she’s arrived home furious from going to make her boyfriend of five years pancakes only to discover that he’s spent the night with another woman, who eats Popeye’s chicken no less.
June’s evening goes downhill when she gets attacked trying to rescue a drunk white woman (O’Sullivan) from potential rapist Dominican Dude (Namir Smallwood), and the police won’t come to help, sparking a diatribe from Tavi. Then, her face red from being hit (no one manages to get her some ice!), she meets a sweet if geeky guy named Justin (Smallwood) at the club, who fixes her shoe (he has a pocket flashlight and crazy glue on him just in case…) and asks her to dance. Later that night, though, things start to get weird. June is home wearing the white cotillion gown she puts on to make her feel beautiful when she’s had a bad day, and Justin shows up at the window claiming he followed her just to make sure she was okay.
The climax brings Justin and the women (except That Bitch) together for a melee that ranges from an extreme and unlikely act of kindness on the fastidious Justin’s part to a knock-down drag-out fight—in slow motion—between June and Tavi that results in them still being friends. Next morning, Tavi goes off for her medical procedure and returns angst-ridden, until she isn’t.
All this plays out on Sibyl Wickersheimer’s wide set, which is crammed with funky couches (comfy symbols of community in black culture, Barnes says in the program) that are moved around to become different settings with the help of Marcus Doshi’s lighting and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s city projections. Trevor Bowen’s costumes with amusing details cannily define the characters.
Given the formulaic plot, these characters, in all their complexity, are the real strength of “BLKS.” I just wish they weren’t pushing so hard that they often come across as overacting. They could take a cue from Smallwood’s Justin, who is as hilarious as he is comparatively understated.