Reviewed by Gregor Collins
I wasn’t planning on writing a review of Aziza Barnes’ BLKS because no one was waiting for one—I was there as a civilian, having scored a ticket from Ruth Walker, editor of the wonderful w42st Magazine. But like an off-duty police officer called into action, I patriotically clocked in. Because here at Theater That Matters, good, provocative theater is a virtue and should be celebrated under any circumstance.
An unfortunate thing, though, is that the play, running at the MCC Theater since earlier this month, closed over Memorial Day weekend, so you won’t be able to see it, at least in the immediate future. But get excited for the next run.
I see a lot of White-People-Having-a-Bad-Day kind of plays that quickly wash over me; BLKS was the polar opposite—raw and illuminating, a tractor-beam of comic realness about finding tenderness in a city about as tender as a Tasmanian devil.
Set in Bushwick, the play opens with Octavia (Paige Gilbert) strutting out of her room post mind-numbing sex with her friend-with-benefits, Ry (Coral Peña). After Octavia excuses herself to take a pee, we hear a blood-curdling scream—Octavia has apparently found a “mole” on her clitoris. Ry is so grossed out she refuses to help examine it, and Octavia, taking thorough offense to this, kicks Ry out of the apartment. Roommate Imani (Alfie Fuller) materializes, and after hearing about Octavia’s growth grabs a bottle of liquor in solidarity. Roommate #3, June (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) storms through the door in crisis mode after her boyfriend Jamal just cheated on her for the 11th time. It’s officially party time.
As the three roommates get ready to hit the clubs—two of them brokenhearted and one of them just along for the ride—the stage, we now realize, is a revolving circle, thrillingly transforming into a 360-degree peeping-Tom’s-view of these firecrackers getting ready, yanking up their miniskirts as they scurry from room to room, twerking to tunes, and snapping the occasional gratuitous bathroom selfie. Most plays are centered around the playwright and the actors—and this one certainly is—but Robert O’Hara’s entertaining direction is one of the most effective parts of the evening.
The rest of the night consists of: June getting slapped by a stranger and meeting a guy carrying a man-purse (Chris Myers) who ends up appearing at her window at 3 am, Imani meeting a white girl who keeps beating herself up for saying things she doesn’t intend to be racist (and then making out with each other on a Subway platform), and Octavia scrunched in a public restroom with a guy she wants “head” from who eventually admits he “doesn’t eat pussy.”
Barnes has crafted a physically-demanding play, borderline farcical at times, and the leads—Gilbert, Fuller, Crowe-Legacy and Myers—show their adept instincts for selling a laugh with their bodies, not just their mouths.
We’re flat-out grossed out at times. The evening is unflinchingly intense and crass. But that it alternates with unforced moments that show unbridled arrogance capitulating to sheer powerlessness, gives it pathos, and gives us the full spectrum of not only what women of color and what gay women of color confront on the daily in a big, crazy city—but what every human being undergoes in their do-or-die pursuit of a life of meaning. No matter who you have sex with or what color your skin is, we’re all broken inside, and we all feel the same things. Everyone essentially lives the same life; some just have more toys or make more mountains out of molehills.
A bonus to the evening is the ubiquitary hip-hop tracks pounding out of the speakers at unexpected moments, the kind of songs keeping even the whitest of necks (yours truly) grooving to the beats.
Keep this on your radar.