In the late stages of 2017, critics and publications across Chicagoland are running their “Best of The Year” in theater pieces. I am 100 percent convinced that if “BLKS” the Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere from Aziza Barnes, debuted just a few weeks earlier, it would sit atop most — if not all — of these lists.
Barnes, an award-winning poet and playwright, brings a vibrant, hilarious, painful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful script to the Steppenwolf stage. It’s hard to briefly describe such a nuanced piece of work, but I will try. Because I want to make sure everyone who comes across this review buys tickets. Press materials offer a promising hint of the rich material audiences will find:
“F**ked up sh*t happens. After an unsavory wake-up call, Octavia decides to put off her troubles and have one last turn up with her friends. In poet Aziza Barnes’s ingenious portrait of a day in the life of four young black women discovering life’s uncomfortable truths in New York City, ‘BLKS’ explores the joy and anguish of growing up and out.”
All this and so much more. Infidelity, illness, Black Lives Matter, income inequality, violent misogyny, grief and stereotype questioning of all kinds. ‘BLKS” tackles all of these issues and rather than feeling overstuffed, every word of dialogue, every movement onstage, is organic. On top of all the rhetorical goodness, this particular production is blessed with talent in abundance — technical, set design and performance.
Directed by Nataki Garrett, the play is set in 2015 against the backdrop of a cigarette selling Eric Garner’s real-life murder by members of the New York police department. The women at the center of Barnes’s theatrical triumph have their eyes wide open. The aforementioned Octavia (portrayed with endearing layers of complication by Nora Carroll) is a young, black lesbian writer with all the cultural baggage that society forces her to carry because of it. Even in New York City.
Octavia has career and romantic issues on top of those inherent to her displacement within the white patriarchy, but she’s also in possession of brains, humor and terrific friends. Imani (brought to life by a strong and vulnerable Celeste Cooper) is a striving stand-up comic who misses her father and also suffers dating complications. But there is — quite literally — nothing she won’t do for her sisters. When Octavia discovers something unpleasant during an early morning trip to the bathroom, Imani is out the door to CVS with all the urgency of a confused but committed partner-in-crime.
June (a gorgeous and deep Leea Ayers) is the only hetero member of the tribe, as well as the sole professional with STEM goals and a huge sack of weed at the ready. But she’s also susceptible to warmly traditional moments. When times get hard, nothing lifts June’s spirits like donning her old cotillion dress — and smoking a blunt.
Finally we have Ry (a terrific Danielle Davis), the casual sex buddy/girlfriend/partner of Octavia, dependent upon the day and mood of the commitmentphobes. Ry and Octavia are also teammates on a filmmaking project. The complications in their story are exactly the messy ones you’d expect from an ill-defined mix of business with pleasure.
That is the beauty of “BLKS.” The characters are dynamic and unique, as well as universal. We may not all be as funny and resilient (seriously, this is one trying day for the gals), but we experience the same broadly categorized challenges. Where are our careers going? Whom shall we choose as a mate — if we choose at all? How do we live our truths against the judgmental assaults of the outside world?
And yet Barnes’s brilliantly drawn characters very much own their blackness. They don’t have all the answers, but they will not go unseen or unheard. And “BLKS” should not go unwatched — by anyone. One of 2017’s best productions.
“BLKS” runs through January 28, 2018 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theater Company website.