By David Greenham
BLKS is a bouncing, romping, profanity-laced, and sex-filled roller coaster — but it also has an important message for those who are not Black femme sisters.
BLKS by Aziza Barnes. Directed by Tonasia Jones. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume design by Cassandra Queen. Lighting design by Kat C. Zhou. Sound design by Anna Drummond. Fight and intimacy choreography by Ted Hewlett. Produced by Speakeasy Stage and performed at the Calderwood Pavilion, Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through November 20.
After 20 months of social distancing and separation, most of us are eager for opportunities to get out and see the world around us again. With poet and playwright Aziza Barnes’s spiky and outrageous 2017 comic drama BLKS, Speakeasy Stage Company throws caution to the wind and hurls us right into the middle of a fun, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking trio of lives.
The wild Brooklyn apartment that belongs to June (Thomika Marie Bridwell), Imani (Kelsey Fonise), and Octavia (Shanelle Chloe Villegas) is its own three-ring circus.
June, who eventually lands a job as a consultant for an accountant, is outraged that she’s found evidence that her boyfriend Jamal is cheating on her again (for the 11th time). That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is what she learns about the girl: “The tacky ass bitch is drinking red wine with her Popeyes meal.”
Imani, a budding stand-up comic, hopes that memorizing jokes from the ’80s Eddie Murphy concert film Raw will bring her closer to her dead father.
Octavia hilariously battles out conflicting ideas about intimacy and monogamy with her on-again/off-again girlfriend Ry (Sandra Seoane-Seri). She’s also found a mole on her clitoris.
Luckily, there’s pot and alcohol to ease the collective pain. Imani sums it all up as she pours out shots of Maker’s Mark for the trio: “If you can’t day drink the day you get a clit mole, I’m really not sure when you can.” Her toast: “To vaginal health!”
No doubt conventional playwriting teachers would warn playwright Barnes that there’s nowhere to go when a script starts on screech. Thankfully, they have (or would) ignore such conservative advice. BLKS barrels ahead from start to finish, supplying plenty of action along the way, though there’s also some masterfully crafted depth.
At a subway stop in SoHo they encounter a Drunk White Woman (Meghan Hornblower) being manhandled by an Ethnically Ambiguous Dude (Sharmarke Yusuf). June boldly breaks up the assault and saves the drunk woman, but the Dude turns his anger on June and assaults her. A call to the police only ups the grievous mistreatment. Imani reports that the cops “really wanted to know if she was a Mexican, Muslim, or Black. They actually said Muslim, too, like that shit was a ethnic group.”
As the 100-minute show powers along, the trio stumbles forward along a rocky path, supporting each other while searching for any opportunity that might lead to some kind of happiness or contentment.
Director Tonasia Jones somehow manages to keep the convoluted story straight, guiding the agile cast through a plot that owes much to sitcoms, but manages to find higher highs and lower lows. It’s a world that is simultaneously hopeless and hopeful.
The trio of leads (Bridwell, Fonise, and Villegas) establish and maintain a warm glow of commiseration. Villegas, in particular, demonstrates sharp comic timing; she often bounds right up to the edge of chaos without ever crossing the line.
As Ry, Seoane-Seri grounds the group, but we never forget that the character is devoted — along with Bridwell’s June — to a damaged relationship. A scene late in the play between the two is one of the highlights of the production.
Hornblower, who doubles as That Bitch on the Couch, shares a revealing scene with Fonise’s Imani that cuts cleverly to the core of the challenge presented to white people when talking about race. As Imani observes, “You can’t seem to get over your shit.”
Yusuf, appearing in three roles, displays a disarming charm and sincerity as Justin. There’s a wonderfully unsettling moment with Villegas’s Octavia that almost changes where things are headed. That is, until all hell hilariously breaks loose yet again.
The production team of Jenna McFarland Lord (sets), Cassandra Queen (costumes), Kat C. Zhou (lights), Anna Drummond (sound), and Ted Hewlett (fight and intimacy choreography) create a crazed world of sights and sounds. We are plunked on the razor’s edge of anarchy, but somehow order is sustained. The hip hop soundtrack is a very effective support for the play’s zig-zag action.
BLKS is a bouncing, romping, profanity-laced, and sex-filled roller coaster — and that is the point. Jones comments in the program that the production is for her Black femme sisters: “I hope this show offers an ‘I see you girl’ memory to all those low nights spent getting our fly back, and all those nights we stood in the face of the outrageous and coped by talking shit and laying on the floors of apartments we could barely afford.”
But BLKS has an important message for those who are not Black femme sisters. There is a revelatory moment after it becomes clear that no one in any position of power is going to muster any concern for June after she is assaulted. Octavia voices her frustration to the audience: “So that’s it? That’s all y’all can do?” Her frustration turns into despair: “Swear they still don’t believe we are people. Like actually people, instead of animals.” This cry of helplessness is probably more impactful now than when it was written four years ago. Barnes’s characters don’t dwell on this injustice for too long. But let’s hope that, in a liberal community that thinks it is doing enough via virtue signaling and DEI training, Octavia’s lament hits home.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.