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updated: 12/20/2017 7:03 PM

20-somethings negotiate friendship, intimacy in Steppenwolf's uneven 'BLKS'

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  • Nora Carroll, left, Leea Ayers and Celeste M. Cooper star as young women negotiating friendship, intimacy and romance in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS" by Aziza Barnes.

    Nora Carroll, left, Leea Ayers and Celeste M. Cooper star as young women negotiating friendship, intimacy and romance in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS" by Aziza Barnes.
    Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Namir Smallwood plays a nice guy drawn into the chaos of three young women's lives in Aziza Barnes' comedy "BLKS."

    Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Namir Smallwood plays a nice guy drawn into the chaos of three young women's lives in Aziza Barnes' comedy "BLKS."
    Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

"BLKS" -- ★ ★

Watching Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS," Aziza Barnes' noisy, uneven new comedy about 20-something African-American women negotiating friendship, intimacy and romance in New York City, one can't help but recall "Girls," Lena Dunham's HBO comedy about 20-something, Caucasian women negotiating friendship, intimacy and romance in New York City.

Barnes, a prizewinning poet, addresses the parallels in a videotape interview on Steppenwolf's website in which she expresses respect for Dunham and acknowledges the different worlds in which they live.

"I get to have mine, right?" she says. "She (Dunham) is not letting me not have mine ... No one's telling me I can't have mine."

Hers is "BLKS," which Barnes describes in a note to audience members as "a play by blk people and for blk people. The absurd, the treacherous, the disgust, the heartbreak, the gorgeous of our days."

Octavia (Nora Carroll) right) confronts ex-girlfriend Ry (Danielle Davis) at a nightclub in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS."
Octavia (Nora Carroll) right) confronts ex-girlfriend Ry (Danielle Davis) at a nightclub in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Provoking, broadly silly and often bawdy, this day-in-the-life tale is certainly one worth telling. Unfortunately, this discordant production doesn't serve it well.

The story centers on roommates Octavia (Nora Carroll), an aspiring screenwriter; mathematician June (Leea Ayers); and comedian Imani (Celeste M. Cooper), whose act consists of parroting bits from Eddie Murphy's 1987 concert film "Raw." All are determined, tumultuous young women who tolerate each other's flaws and call out each other's nonsense. Aggressively honest and endlessly loyal, they are also selfish and self-absorbed. Most important, though, they forgive. We should all be so lucky.

More character study than anything, "BLKS" commences with Octavia's discovery of a suspicious mole in a delicate area. She asks her sometime girlfriend and aspiring filmmaker Ry (a warm, perceptive Danielle Davis) to inspect. When Ry refuses, Octavia kicks her out of the apartment. Convinced the mole portends the end of her sex life, Octavia invites Imani and June -- who that morning learned her boyfriend is cheating on her -- to embark upon a day of drinking and a night of clubbing.

After an encounter with a would-be rapist, June meets nice guy Justin (the altogether endearing, nicely authentic Namir Smallwood). The handiest of men, Justin repairs June's broken heel with his ever-present penlight and some Crazy Glue. Justin is nothing if not prepared. Meanwhile, Imani flirts with an unnamed Caucasian woman (a spot-on Kelly O'Sullivan). She's a woke woman, the kind you imagine claims she doesn't see race, yet persists in trying to touch Imani's hair while ignoring how uncomfortable that makes Imani, who struggles with emotional baggage of her own.

Imani (Celeste M. Cooper), right. flirts with an unnamed woman (Kelly O'Sullivan) at a club in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS."
Imani (Celeste M. Cooper), right. flirts with an unnamed woman (Kelly O'Sullivan) at a club in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "BLKS." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Octavia runs into Ry, who confronts her about their relationship. Are they just two people who hang out and have sex? Is it something more? Could it be?

Cleary, Barnes has a lot to say about young women (gay and straight) searching for someone to be with (maybe even love) while striving for money, success and purpose in a society that treat them as "less than." Her writing, as befits a poet, is economical and impassioned, its profane humor leavened on occasion by an unstudied sweetness.

But the play needs polish and some refining. Revelations late in the second act about one woman's unresolved grief and another's insecurity ring hollow because they seem to come out of nowhere.

Not all of director Nataki Garrett's choices makes sense. Case in point: a comic catfight inexplicably staged in slow motion.

Overall, the production could use a lighter touch. Unrelenting, bordering on shrill, the bombast threatens to overwhelm the play's quieter, more authentic moments. The best of which are heart-to-heart conversations between Smallwood's eager Justin and Ayers' wary June, and another between Ayers and Davis' Ry, who eloquently explains why she loves the woman she loves.

After a stressful day, June (Leea Ayers) seeks comfort in her old cotillion gown in "BLKS," a new comedy by Aziza Barnes, co-starring Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Namir Smallwood, left.
After a stressful day, June (Leea Ayers) seeks comfort in her old cotillion gown in "BLKS," a new comedy by Aziza Barnes, co-starring Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Namir Smallwood, left. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Garrett isn't the only one with a heavy hand. Case in point: Imani's 911 call reporting the attempted sexual assault, which is greeted with indifference by the dispatcher presumably because it involves minority perpetrators and victims. It reinforces the perception that authorities don't pay attention to violence in minority communities. There's also a fleeting -- yet pointed -- reference to high-profile cases involving police officers killing unarmed African-American men. The scene initially struck me as forced and inorganic. That is until I recognized that Barnes' heavy hand serves a purpose, reminding audiences -- in the starkest terms -- the challenges African-Americans confront every day.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 28. No performances Dec. 24. No 7:30 p.m. performances Jan. 14, 21 and 28

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission

Tickets: $20-$89

Parking: $12 in the parking lot adjacent to the theater, limited street parking available

Rating: For adults; contains strong language and mature subject matter

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