“There’s something intrinsic about a couch in black culture,” Aziza Barnes, the author of BLKS, the hilarious and often powerful play about being young, female, and black, says in an interview published in the play’s program. “It’s like a porch for city dwellers…It’s really evocative of a pioneer life and what matters and what mattered was a place that you or anyone could feel comfortable.”
Couches are the first thing you notice when you walk into the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf to see BLKS. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set design incorporates at least six of them, some facing forward, some facing rear, some piled atop each other and rigged with cables as if they were climbing the back wall. If couches are about making people comfortable, this set is the ultimate in comfort zones. Though it does occasionally become other places (a nightclub, a street scene), for the most part it is the apartment shared by three young black women, Octavia (Nora Carroll), Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) and June (Leea Ayers), a place where long conversations, comfortable and uncomfortable, serious and hilarious, important and frivolous, occur every day. It is their world, and we’re sharing it during one crazy day when both June and Octavia (Tavi) have the world’s worst wake-up calls.
Tavi awakens in bed with her girlfriend Ry (Danielle Davis)—well, whether they are actually “girlfriends” is an ongoing topic of conversation—and, as she takes a break to go to the bathroom, discovers what appears to be a new mole in a very private place. June decides to surprise her boyfriend with breakfast, so she buys ingredients to make pancakes and goes to his place to start making them only to discover that he has had another woman there overnight. Imani wants to help them both but is preoccupied with memorizing Eddie Murphy’s Raw for her own reasons. “Raw” is a good word to describe their conversations: open, honest, unsubtle, profane, emotional, and absolutely real.
Caveat: I am a middle-aged white woman. I share little demographical connection to the characters of this play. So take my assessment of what is “real” with a grain of salt; it seemed awfully real to me, but what do I know? That, however, didn’t stop me from laughing heartily all night and feeling powerfully when painful moments came along.
And there are such moments.
Early in the play, June tries to break up an attempted rape and is then assaulted herself. When Imani tries to call the cops, she finds that none will come to this neighborhood, leading to a powerful and difficult speech by Tavi about how white people still view black people as unimportant, as little more than animals. June describes her disheveled face to Justin (Namir Smallwood), a young man who finds her interesting outside of the nightclub: “The tears are from my boyfriend cheating on me; the bruise and swelling on my cheek are from some asshole.” It’s been a day.
Ultimately, all of the women in this play are very insecure, and that insecurity leads to vulnerability that leads to rich comedy for Barnes to mine and director Nataki Garrett to bring out. In addition to her new facial hangups, June is very insecure about her need for acceptance, both by her friends (she is constantly reminding them about her new, high-paying job) and men. Tavi is insecure about her relationship with Ry; she refuses to categorize it in any way that makes it permanent but hates the idea of Ry with anyone else. Her loss of control over her life that begins in the morning with the mole freaks her out completely; she wants to make all of the decisions that affect her. Imani’s hangups concern a need to be connected, not just to her friends but to her memories. Ry is very insecure when it comes to Tavi; she keeps coming back to her again and again even though intellectually she knows there is no “there” there.
Even the minor characters are subject to this theme: Justin seems to desire acceptance and love deeply. He’s a bit of a sweet nerd (he carries a penlight and super glue in his pocket, just in case he should need them), and it’s easy to imagine he has had few important friendships. (When Tavi asks him at one point if he has any friends, he simply doesn’t answer.) And another character, a white woman known as That Bitch on the Couch who is first seen making it with Ry but then finds herself interested in Imani, is extremely insecure about her own understanding of inter-racial politics.
It’s easy to see where the comedy comes from in these last two, but there is also hilarious comedy in the inter-relationships among the main four characters. Unfortunately, a lot of it is pretty much unprintable, so you’ll just have to trust me. Let’s just say you’ll never laugh so hard at a single swear word as you will in this play, and it comes from June, who is (at least on the surface) the most refined of them all. (Of course she’s also the one who habitually smokes pot, so there’s that.)
Wickersheimer’s set is enhanced by Marcus Doshi’s lighting design and an ongoing series of cityscape projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson that constantly suggests movement and keep this firmly placed in New York City. (These are especially helpful in the street scenes.) Original music by T. Carlis Roberts also helps maintain the mood and drive the scenes. And Garrett has a field day here, in one scene even going into super slow motion to enhance the comedy inherent in the moment. It’s brilliant directing.
Late in the play, Tavi describes her life—at least on this difficult day—as being like a moth that keeps flying up and up and “running into the ceiling again and again, too dumb to fly away and see the whole damn thing” and know there are other directions to fly. Sometimes, life can seem that relentless and frustrating. With friends, though—the kind we share our couches with—it can be a whole lot better.
BLKS is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650. N. Halsted in Chicago, until January 21. Tue-Sun 7:30 PM; Matiness vary—see webpage. Tickets are $62-89 and are available from Steppenwolf Theatre. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member