Review: BLKS at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: BLKS at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Aziza Barnes’s BLKS is often funny, often vulgar, and sometimes heartbreaking. Now in a world premiere staging at Steppenwolf, BLKS chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three young black women in their early 20s living in New York City. Barnes’s playwriting is achingly real and naturalistic, while also showcasing the playwright’s poetic chops. In Octavia (Nora Carroll), Imani (Celeste Cooper), and June (Leea Ayers), Barnes has given us three unique and beautifully written characters navigating a tumultuous moment in their young lives.

While these three characters navigate their early 20s and this critical moment of self-discovery, however, they also find themselves in the challenging position of having to constantly explain themselves to others. Most notably, Barnes’s three central characters are asked to justify themselves to random and often misogynistic men on the street (all played by Steppenwolf ensemble member Namir Smallwood), seemingly well-intentioned white women (here symbolized by Kelly O’Sullivan’s brilliantly portrayed “That Bitch On The Couch”), as well as their lovers, including Octavia’s significant other (or is she) Ry (Danielle Davis). By presenting us scenes from a day in the life of Octavia, Imani, and June, Barnes thus seems to be posing the question: Why must these black women explain themselves to others when they’re still trying to figuring themselves out? It’s a powerful and thoughtfully articulated question that Barnes manages to communicate in BLKS without ever veering towards the didactic.

Under the direction of Nataki Garrett, Barnes has also found an ensemble capable of bringing BLKS’s complex script to life. As Octavia, Carroll milks the role for maximum humor but also leans into many moments of true vulnerability. Cooper is equally excellent as Imani, particularly as she navigates a new passion for stand-up comedy. The scenes between Cooper and O’Sullivan are also especially powerful. O’Sullivan’s character is justifiably widely drawn in Barnes’s script, and she does not shy away from the character. As June, Ayers delightfully balances her character’s controlled, bold facade while also allowing us to see the heartbreak and sadness that lie below the surface. Smallwood deftly navigates a series of different roles throughout the play, making each turn distinct. As Octavia’s partner of questionable relationship status Ry, Davis infuses even more humor into Barnes’s inherently funny text and gives us additional insight into the central character of Octavia based on their connection.

Though BLKS takes place in the course of a single day, it has many, many locations, and Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set design largely succeeds in communicating those various spaces to the audience. As to be expected from Steppenwolf,  Wickersheimer has paid exquisite attention to detail in her design. Trevor Bowen’s costume designs imbue each character with a specific sense of style that feels utterly in keeping with the script, and Marcus Doshi’s lighting adds further atmospheric detail.

The first act of BLKS is taut and precisely written, while the play loses some direction in the second act. Then again, this seems fitting for a play that is in many ways about self-discovery and the search for connection. Barnes is also not afraid to stage moments that are unabashedly vulgar and explicit—of which there are many. The character work overall is superlative. BLKS masterfully brings to the stage characters we don’t often see in theater, and this portrait of three young black women navigating early adulthood is both poetic and bracingly realistic.

BLKS plays the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, through January 28. Tickets are $20-$89.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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