Review: "BLKS" at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Jordan Nickels

  • OnStage Blog Contributing Critic

Aziza Barnes looks at life in the city from the perspective of a black woman, bringing her poetic flair and contemporary voice to the Upstairs Theatre with her new play BLKS, at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. While Barnes’ voice speaks to a specific audience, the themes and characters in BLKS translate to a universal audience.

BLKS begins with Octavia, who is awaiting surgery the next day and decides to go out with her friends to turn up one last time. This play follows the story of three other young black women: June, who just got a major promotion at work, but is having trouble with her love life; Imani, an aspiring stand-up comedienne; and Ry, Octavia’s on-and-off again girlfriend. The audience goes along for a whirlwind 48 hours with these women in New York City, dealing with issues from their relationships, work, and social lives.  

The ensemble of BLKS was extremely well cast. While her character was struggling at stand-up, Celeste M. Cooper brought great comedy to Imani’s pursuits at love. Leea Ayers gave June great emotional depth to a character that seems very superficial and one-sided at first glance. The set looked like an actual New York loft in its chaos and compactness. The functionality of the space and ability to take us to multiple locations outside the apartment was possible because of set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer.

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Barnes examines life for a woman in the city, particularly as a black woman. For the characters in this play, these ideas are mutually exclusive, bringing up important revelations about race and privilege in our society. However, this play flips these issues back on the characters as well. There is scene where Imani meets a white girl and both have a mutual attraction. While the white girl begins as very ignorant and stuck in stereotypes attached to people of color, Imani falls into similar stereotypical thinking and reveals insecurities around being interested in a white woman.

The many complicated ideas found within Aziza Barnes’ play are what makes this story work. The situations these characters face are relevant to any audience, but at the same time are viewed with a specific lens and connect deeper with a black audience. From the humor to the dialogue, it’s written in a way that appeals to a vast audience, however unintentional by the playwright.

Aziza Barnes included a note in the program saying “this is a play by blk people and for blk people,” and “for y’all that don’t fit that description, take your lead from the people that do.” BLKS does what similar stories like Girls and Sex in the City achieved on television, but with a lot more depth and appeal to a contemporary audience. Hopefully this production is a sign that a modern audience can take away common ideals through a different perspective.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.

Photo by Michael Brosilow