David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
Poet-playwright Aziza Barnes puts many ingredients into their script blender to whip up a “comedic look” at the lives of Octavia (Paige Gilbert), Imani (Alfie Fuller), and June (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, three twenty something black women living in New York City – a city where black lives seem not to matter and where, for that reason, it has become difficult for the trio to navigate the bumpy road to finding intimacy and purpose. The ingredients blended into Aziaza Barnes’s “coming to terms” tragicomedy include belonging; police mistreatment; sexual violence; interracial communication; white privilege; self-loathing; systemic racism; and genital moles. Unfortunately, because these items have been blended using the “SCREAM button, their importance is difficult to discern, and Aziza Barnes’s new and important voice is muffled considerably.
These discontents are exposed in a series of scenes that define the three main characters and their authentic conflicts. Octavia has a “partner” Ry (Coral Peňa) with whom she is making a movie and experiencing satisfying and frequent sex. Unfortunately, Ry is less concerned about Octavia’s genital mole and proves to be less than “committed” to their relationship. June is at the top of her game professionally but has a boyfriend who is a serial cheater. She explores “connecting” with Justin (Chris Myers) who appears at her bedroom window after a whispered profession of “love” at a local club. Imani struggles for recognition as a standup comic and wrestles to relate meaningfully with “that [white] bitch on the couch” (Marié Botha) she meets at the same club and who fails to understand the “rules” of interracial communication.
After it’s critically acclaimed runs at Steppenwolf in 2017 and 2018 and at the Wooly Mammoth earlier this year, “BLKS” has landed rather weakly on the stage of the Newman Mills Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. The scenes play out in the “wedges” of a turntable that reveal confined sets of a living room, bathroom, and one bedroom. There are scenes beyond the apartment; however, like the apartment itself, the play’s latent but important themes appear cramped beyond recognition. With the expansive stage at the Mills, it is puzzling why Clint Ramos decides to design the set in such a restrictive manner.
The playwright’s message needs to land heavily and uncomfortably on the audience but much of what faces Octavia, Imani, and June and the black community for whom Aziza Barnes wrote BLKS, is subtle and insidious and does not lend itself to the ravages of heightened decibels. There are moments when director Robert O’Hara tones down the volume and allows the dialogue to take center stage; however, these moments are not frequent enough and the actors are relegated to shouting their worries rather than allowing them to move more quietly and more “seriously” over the minds and hearts of the audience. The members of the cast do what they can to expose their ennui and their pain. Unfortunately, the set and the direction often get in the way of Aziza Barnes’s seditious script.
This current iteration of “BLKS” – thirty minutes have been shaved off the current intermission less ninety-minute production – plays more like a sitcom than perhaps it should and the seriousness, the somberness of the play’s message becomes lost. The audience, for example, is coerced to know more about Octavia’s genital mole than about June’s facial bruise. Perhaps, because of the emphasis placed on the mole, Octavia’s medical crisis is meant to be a trope (here an extended metaphor) for the sense of hopelessness, rage, and exclusion felt by the roommates. If that is the intent, it fails to deliver the pathos and ethos necessary to ignite the needed catharsis.
The cast features Marié Botha, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alfie Fuller, Paige Gilbert, Chris Myers and Coral Peňa. The creative team for “BLKS” includes scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Alex Jainchill, and sound design by Palmer Hefferan.
“BLKS” runs in the Newman Mills Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (511 West 52nd Street-between 10th and 11th Avenues) through Sunday My 26, 2019. For performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://mcctheater.org/. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alfie Fuller, Paige Gilbert in “BLKS.” Credit: Deen van Meer.