Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Steppenwolf Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Kelly O’Sullivan, Danielle Davis, Nora Carroll,
and Leea Ayers

Photo by Michael Brosilow
A press kit note from author Aziza Barnes says BLKS "is a play by blk people and for blk people" (and an interview printed in the program suggests the vowels from the word "blacks" have been dropped to create a word that refers to a people, not a color). It is certainly that, but Barnes's play is much more resonant. The playwright has proved the validity of the old writing adage to find the general by writing about the specific. BLKS follows one day and the following morning in the lives of three young African-American women living in Brooklyn, and while the language and some of the incidents are unique to the African-American experience, there's much for anyone who is or ever was a young and single adult living in a big city rife with opportunities for professional success and personal trouble.

BLKS follows three African-American roommates living in Brooklyn. Two are on the fringes of show business—Octavia (Nora Carroll) is an aspiring actress and Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) is working on a career in standup comedy. The third, June (Leea Ayers), is not—and what career she is pursuing is revealed in a funny/insightful way that won't be disclosed here. The comedy opens rather manically (and graphically), as a sexual encounter between Octavia and her girlfriend Ry (Danielle Davis) is followed by Octavia's discovery (on the toilet!) that she has a threatening-looking spot on her clitoris. Ry's reaction to this news leads to an argument between the two that quickly turns into a breakup. June enters, furious because she had gone to her boyfriend's apartment to fix him breakfast, only to find evidence of his tryst with another woman. In response, Octavia, June and Imani resolve to go out clubbing in Manhattan that evening.

On their night out, Octavia, June and Imani separate. Imani meets a young woman (Kelly O'Sullivan, whose character is identified only as "Drunk White Woman"). O'Sullivan's character has an apparent special interest in blk women, but she gradually shows a sincerity that seems more than skin deep, challenging Imani to decide how far to trust this stranger. June meets an unusual young man named Justin (Namir Smallwood, in the largest of three roles he takes here) who is taken with June and gets her attention with a very non-traditional mix of insecurity and what might be called "stealthy bravado." He wants to get into Imani's life, but maintains a level of decency even as he connives.

O'Sullivan and Smallwood's characters are both stunningly original—not fitting into any convenient stereotypes of men or white women. Their uniquenesses are perplexing to Imani and June—and just one of the many hallmarks of Barnes's fine writing. Octavia, fearful that the treatment she has scheduled to get rid of that nasty spot will deprive her of sexual sensation, looks for one last night of ecstasy, a quest that leads her to a more manipulative male, also played by Smallwood.

Director Nataki Garrett, her cast and Barnes all show sharp comedic skill, and the show is laugh out loud funny, but smart and with heart. The characters are intelligent and determined to get the good stuff for their lives, but at this stage, not entirely sure how or even if they're going to get it. It's that quality that makes this so relatable to a wider audience. It's the "bright young face in the big city" plotline that's been successful since Katharine Hepburn's Stage Door, done here in a contemporary and ethnically specific way, but still universal, and with characters you can love.

Carroll's Octavia is the largest presence—everything she experiences is a moment of high drama, but, hey, she's an actress! The other two roommates are noticeably more grounded, though still prone to some histrionics. They are good to each other (Davis's Ry is particularly kind) and you're with them on their journey.

The contemporary New York City milieu is nicely established by Sibyl Wickersheimer's set that focuses mainly on the women's Brooklyn loft, Trevor Bowen's costumes, and a nice original musical score by sound designer T. Carlis Roberts. Those are the fun parts of the milieu. The horrifying parts are some brief references to urban violence as perpetrated by civilians and police alike. These moments feel a little shoehorned in, dramatically, but they are essential points to be made about the reality of life in America for African Americans. Barnes would have been remiss if they hadn't been included. For these characters, the danger of urban violence is as real a part of their existence as is the proximity of great jobs and glamorous nightlife.

This is a stage comedy that should certainly have long legs. A Broadway production would seem quite feasible to me. Even more, this could be the starting point for a TV series. The situation of young women living in Brooklyn and tackling New York City worked pretty well for HBO and Lena Dunham's Girls, and Barnes's "girls" are a whole lot more likeable and fun.

BLKS will play the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, Illinois, through January 28, 2018. For further information and tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.orga, or call 312-335-1650.

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