Steppenwolf spills a lot of program ink trying to prepare an audience for 25-year-old poet Aziza Barnes’s first play, BLKS, which chronicles 24 hours in the clutching, haphazard lives of four unsettled twentysomething African-American women in New York. In addition to a full-page welcoming statement from artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, the program includes a three-page as-told-to-style feature in which Barnes muses over the play’s genesis, themes, and images in alternately playful and mystifying prose. Neither is terribly useful in helping us know where things might be headed, or why it should matter. All that’s needed is the ten-line poem Barnes adds as a program insert. It does much to evoke—and to an extent muddy—the promising communal world the author intends to create.
“This is a play by blk people and for blk people,” the poem begins, with an invitation for “blk people to live fully here.” Although it’s difficult to discern which people Barnes believes the play is by, considering the cast, design team, and production crew each include nonblack people, claiming the mighty Steppenwolf as a normatively black space is bracing indeed, especially in this political moment, in a theater community as white as Chicago’s. Those of us who “don’t fit the description,” the poem continues, should “take your lead from the people that do.” It’s a gracious slap-down of white privilege, even if the multiplicity of responses that any play will evoke makes it impossible to know whose lead one might properly take.
In any case, Barnes comes on a cheeky insurrectionist—not a bad posture to take before this sprawling, ambitious play—then exits a timid apologist. The poem concludes with an approximation of a line from a Richard Pryor act: “Let’s just all calm down and enjoy whatever the f**k happens.” It’s reiterated in a prerecorded announcement just before the performance begins. Residual seriousness is apparently best shrugged off before the show even starts.
Which brings us to the fundamental problem with Barnes’s theatrical world: it doesn’t know how to take itself seriously.
Admittedly, Barnes is writing comedy, for which they (Barnes’s preferred pronoun) have a knack. The play opens with wannabe filmmakers Octavia and Ry in mid cunnilingus, after which Octavia schlumps to the bathroom and checks out her vulva. Surely this will be a moment of rapture and self-love straight out of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Instead, Octavia shrieks. A mole, she shouts, is growing on her clit.
The two-hour evening is full of such arresting moments, as the promise of even minor fulfillment—romantic, sexual, artistic—is repeatedly withdrawn by everything from systemic indifference to interpersonal politics to pure happenstance. Wandering and stumbling through a single alcohol-soaked, sex-addled day in search of a connection to, well, anything, the four women (Ry, Octavia, and her roommates, Imani and June) seem buffeted by forces they can barely discern. Structurally, the play is a whirlwind, aptly echoing the women’s impulse-driven lives.
But for all the efforts to elevate the protagonists’ serial crises, much of their story feels trivialized by a perplexing emotional grandiosity that pervades the play. When Olivia finds the mole, for example, she doesn’t just shriek; she becomes quickly convinced it’s cancer for which she’ll need an operation that will leave her permanently without sexual feeling. Ry is so appalled when Octavia asks her merely to look at the mole that she hyperventilates, exclaims “I really don’t know what you could want from me,” and rushes out the door. Imani, having heard Olivia’s shriek, runs around the apartment as though caught in a natural disaster before dashing out to buy Band-Aids.
If BLKS were an all-out farce, such extreme responses might be hilarious (as might the hyperagitated performances director Nataki Garrett unfortunately encourages in her cast). But Barnes is writing a kind of comedic social realism, and in that context these characters seem to have the emotional maturity of tweens. Taking their predicaments seriously is no easy task, especially since they can be depended upon to mistake surmountable challenges for life-changing calamities. Ry, for example, works herself into near hysteria because she and Octavia haven’t clarified whether they’re girlfriends, partners, or fuck buddies.
Admirably, Barnes aims for big things in BLKS, ultimately putting the women in the crosshairs of sexual violence, police mistreatment, and debilitating self-loathing. But with such constricted characters and overwrought incidents, little seems as important as it should. v