BLKS, poet Aziza Barnes’ foray into playwriting, is a funny, insightful and honest look into the lives of four, 20-something black women living in New York City. Forged with humor and millenial veracity, Barnes’ play is a welcome entry into the canon of contemporary American plays. Receiving a production at Steppenwolf, it offers a multiplicity of takeaways without ever straying from maintaining its entertaining, sitcom-esque pace.
The action of Barnes’ play centers around a quartet of women navigating adulthood, romance and friendship in a New York apartment. Octavia, who is the heart of the play and is portrayed in a carefully layered performance by Nora Carroll, has just discovered a genital mole and is anxiously considering how this potentially radical development will alter her life. Her romantic partner, Ry (Danielle Davis), wants nothing to do with checking the mole, an action which causes Octavia and Ry to consider the ramifications and definition of their relationship. Meanwhile, Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) practices imitating the standup of Eddie Murphy from an old DVD, and June (Leea Ayers) vows to turn up for the evening after discovering that her boyfriend has been cheating on her.
Although structured as a “day in the life” of these women, BLKS offers greater depth than typical slice-of-life pieces achieve in dissecting their characters. BLKS also demonstrates that Barnes’ ear for truthful, potent dialogue is rivaled only by her knack for witty one-liners. Buoyed by an earnest romanticism and quick pacing from director Nataki Garrett, Carroll, Davis, Cooper and Ayers hit all the right notes across the play’s two acts. Each character’s arc is as truthful and hilarious as the next, thanks to each actor’s full commitment to Barnes’ smart, honest writing.
The vibrant action of BLKS is supported by equally vibrant design. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s scenic design allows for characters to travel from an apartment to a club and back again with very little changeover, and still manages to provide more than just functionality. With a conflagration of couches, color, and brick, Wickersheimer creates a world as raw and dynamic as the characters who inhabit it.
Bursting with heart and humor, BLKS is a strong production whose ideas, characters and events will follow you out of the theatre.
BLKS runs through January 28 at Steppenwolf in the Upstairs Theatre, located at 1650 N Halsted St. Single tickets ($20-$89) are available at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.