After a screeching, joyful (offstage) orgasm with her girlfriend Ry, the unemployed Octavia discovers a mole on her clitoris. When she shares the news with her roommates, Imani, an unattached lesbian, wannabe standup comic, and June, an accountant with boyfriend blues, Imani proclaims “If you can’t make a drink day outta the day you get a clit mole….” and passes around the Jim Bean and reefer. So begins, a raucous, crazy, dangerous girls-night-out. And so, too, begins BLKS, a kick-ass, bad-ass, loud, raw, often hilarious and always vital new play from Aziza Barnes that lets the dogs out on life in America from the 20something, African American women’s POV. The time is June 2015, when a rash of racially charged incidents plagued NYC; the setting the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
Fortified by booze and reefer (and a rap/hip hop soundtrack) the trio embarks on 24 hours of clubbing. Their Nwe York City weekend odyssey recalls Leopold Bloom’s in Dublin; if Joyce plumbed the complex subconscious of 20th century modern Everyman, Barnes’ BLKS exposes the primal, naked insecurities and everyday risks of being Black, female and gay in modern America. Octavia’s clit mole isn’t just a plot device for her to bitch about what’s wrong with the world; it’s a metaphor for how the world affects her identity, her security, her very personhood.
When I say Barnes lets the dogs out, it’s because she disses the 2006 hit, which celebrates disrespect of women, and and dramatizes how much Black women remain at risk. Still, Barnes’ trajectory is comedy. Given BLKS’ peripatetic, episodic structure - and its non-stop, wise-ass, one-liners - the humor is ostensibly sitcom. Barnes gets beyond that. Even if her writing can be uneven, at its best BLKS is uproarious social farce whether Barnes intends it to be or not. Barne's storytelling can be a mess, but it's always marvelous.
Barnes cultural purview of the young female Black experience includes the kitchen sink. Masculinity? The men in BLKS are either abusers, cheaters or weirdoes. One tries to rape June, and then assaults her. Another subjects Octavia in a club toilet to his fetish of ripping panties off booty. June’s boyfriend treats her like crap; says Octavia “he’s cheated on her 11 times this year that we know of”. The most benign guy is a charming but compulsive freak that a drunken, horny Octavia finds useful for “getting head” (cunnilingus, and this time, on stage).
Success? The accountant June, the only gainfully employed of the lot, groping for some self-esteem, boasts to the under-employed Ry that she makes “$100k at Deloite". Retorts an indifferent Ry, “What’s Deloite?”. Imani thinks her comedy club break will be her imitation of Eddie Murphy’s Raw act; she bombs pathetically. The subway entrance in the Bushwick hood displays a poster for the sitcom "Grace and Frankie", a visual reminder of the class divide these Black millenials and white, upscale, Beverly Hills divorcees.
Racism? When Imani picks up a white, blond lipstick lesbian (simply referred to as That Bitch on the Couch whom Ry was putting the moves on) she drunkenly accepts getting paid for answering questions about what it’s like to be Black. At first she says she’s getting “retribution” from That (White) Bitch but later she wonders if she was ho-in’.
Robert O’Hara (who happens to be African American) directs BLKS at the fast and furious pace Barnes’ script deserves, and doesn’t get in the way of Barnes’ voice. Clint Ramos has designed an ingenious, rotating set that takes the trio from an untidy, cramped Brooklyn apartment to dark streets and dank clubs and back again. The cast (two of whom are recent Yale Drama grads) is uniformly excellent, but special kudos go to Alfie Fuller (who distinguished herself in two productions at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer) as Imani. Her broad, comic timing and physical comedy are superb. What’s more, she navigates a back story about Imani’s father near the end of the play where Barnes’ storytelling gets wobbly. Still, BLKS, full of anger and laughs, is one of the freshest, most energetic new, uniquely American plays from a new American playwright, uniquely about American life that I’ve seen in a long time (along with SLAVE PLAY and DADDY by Jeremy O. Harris, another gay African American). Aziza Barnes - what a voice! I want to hear it as loud and clear again in her next work soon.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!