The women in “BLKS” have a lot going on. June is dealing with a break-up. Imani is struggling with a stalled career as a comedian/artist. And Octavia has just discovered she has a cancerous genital mole that needs removing. These friends have good reason to indulge in a night of heavy drinking and shenanigans, and poet Aziza Barnes gives them plenty to do in this wide-eyed, wild-hearted comedy now playing at the Steppenwolf.
Octavia (Nora Carroll) is the soul of the trio, and medical issue aside, she is also fighting with her vaguely labelled romantic partner Ry (Danielle Davis, so excellent in the recent “Fun Home”), who unexpectedly becomes part of the evening at the club. Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) finds herself the object of affection of a white woman (Kelly O’Sullivan), known only as That Drunk Bitch On The Couch, who spends most of her time apologizing for not doing or saying the right things in regards to race. And June (Leea Ayers) meets a Boy Scout level prepared man named Justin (Namir Smallwood), who fixes her broken heel, and may hold the key to fixing her broken heart.
Or at least that is how matters stand before the second act of “BLKS.” Barnes has no interest in letting this rowdy night simplify as the hours wear on. The people surrounding our heroines let them down, or prove to have their own agendas. It is not safe for these women out in the streets, and their own bodies are under attack, a fact represented not only by Octavia’s mole, but by a disturbing encounter with a possible rapist (also played by Smallwood) outside the club. The realities they face are much more complicated than the realities I face, as I carry the privilege of being a white woman, and Barnes highlights for the audience that in order to find joy, these friends must wade through some awful violence to get there. The second half of the play leans into that idea without providing the confident structure that the first act does, and Barnes’ theme loses its bite a bit in the process. But the characters are never less than warm, hilarious, and conflicted, and I always wanted to know where they would land the morning after.
Director Nataki Garrett has brought together a wonderful ensemble for this piece of theatre. Carroll holds the crew together as a confused young women who is searching for intimacy, but does not know how to ask for what she needs most. Davis brings heart and energy to her potential girlfriend, while Cooper’s flirting and zero-to-sixty attitude in a crisis are entertaining; O’ Sullivan is open-hearted, while her guilty cluelessness shows how dissatisfying her conversations with Cooper will become. Ayers works particularly well with Carroll, as the women navigate the evening’s losses, and stick up for one another when their problems escalate. And Smallwood performs a complex dance, first making us understand Justin’s appeal, then challenging us to see just how lonely and mixed up the man is by morning’s light.
Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has a ball delineating the spaces of the women’s shared apartment. The exposed window architecture and couches bolted to the walls give the production an air of surreality, as the comfort of communal living proves more frenzied and fraught than it first appears. Trevor Bowen’s costume design speaks to each character’s style and needs on their night out, and Marcus Doshi’s club lighting combined with T. Carlis Robert’s sound design create the illusion that the women have escaped the troubles they unpacked in their home.
Even though it is a comedy, “BLKS” provides no simple answers. The women rage and dance and build one another up, but there is a thread of loneliness, grief, and hurt running through each of their lives that cannot be solved, no matter what they do. Watching how they endure their loss is definitely entertaining, but I do wonder what will become of each of them after the lights go down, and the audience leaves them behind.
TEN-WORD SUMMARY: Wild night brings truths to light in this warm comedy.
DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”
Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N Halsted St)