Aziza Barnes’ “BLKS” begins with the sudden appearance of a genital mole. But this poignant blast of a comedy at the Steppenwolf Theatre is really all about that time in your life when what happens in the moment starts to not mean enough.
All kinds of things happen contemporaneously to Barnes’ hugely likable quartet of pals, variously energized, assailed and overwhelmed, merely by living in modern-day-drunk New York City while simultaneously being African-American, female and less than 25 years old.
Aside from the aforementioned, mortality-imbuing invader, the women — Octavia (Nora Carroll), June (Leea Ayers), Imani (Celeste Cooper) and Ry (Danielle Davis) — have to navigate the possibilities and inconsistencies of friends, lovers and each other, gay, straight and superseding such creaking definition. Then there’s the obstacle course of mostly disappointing black men and white women, in their arms, on the streets, around the dance floor. In Barnes’ intentionally reductive telling, the men mostly are attached to their Cro-Magnon male ways, despite, you know, everything. And while the white women have potential, they’re so reduced to mumbling guilt by the changed rules of interracial communication that even casual sex with them is fraught.
And a lot more work than it’s probably worth.
“BLKS” will be compared with television’s “Girls,” and, vowels or no vowels, the title hints at a reaction to, or a conversation with, the white, downtown Gotham universe embodied by Lena Dunham and her post-collegiate cohorts.
As in “Girls,” the women of “BLKS” speak frankly about sex, but we rarely see them enjoying it, and the millennial self-actualization imperative keeps running up against another millennial self, inconveniently self-actualizing in a totally different direction. The goals of the women are similar: money, trust, jobs that mean something and, to recall the timeless “Rent” lyrics of Jonathan Larson, the achievement of true connection in an isolating age. For the women who make up “BLKS,” real intimacy is far harder to find than an orgasm.
“BLKS” follows four main women — all of whom find themselves mouthing versions of “I’m not down for this” — and does justice by them all. But you still feel like you can see the playwright in Octavia, whom the vulnerable but determined Carroll fully understands is both the lead character and the moral heart of the play. Octavia’s quests for someone to whom she can truly reveal herself trump all else.
But it would not be fair to this terrific play — which is directed like it’s an open-heart emergency by Nataki Garrett — to see it merely as conversational or reactive. There is a deep longing for connection in the writing — a touching romanticism, actually, and the whole play often feels like a cry for the urban world to just be kinder and better and easier.
Barnes also shows a killer comic sense. Take, for example, a scene in Act 2 where the accountant-consultant June (Ayers, in an auspicious Steppenwolf debut) has just found herself whispering “I love you” to some semi-random dude on the dance-floor — a decision of the moment, you might say — which then means he shows up in her window. Meanwhile, she has reacted to the stress of the night by donning her cotillion dress.
It’s a delicious little scene played out by Ayers and Namir Smallwood — a woman in a weird white dress, a guy she barely knows popped up under a sash wondering what she meant, a woman regretting what came out of her mouth, mostly, since she values love and respect and has come to see the exhausting self-involvement of her arty-type roomies. It’s both totally recognizable to the long-single urban person of any race or generation and the stuff of high farce.
But here’s why “BLKS” is most impressive. As you watch, you feel like that scene could go in any of several directions, some leading to happiness, some to more layers of misery (or what an older optimist might term “delayed happiness”). That’s true of the whole play. At intermission, I doubt you’ll know where it is going. But you’ll want to know.
There is stuff to fix, almost all of it in the last few minutes. The language of “BLKS” needs to be unremittingly truthful, and, in the final moments, Garrett suddenly abandons the style that has been working so well for everyone in favor of a faux-cinematic pulp slo-mo, which serves not the piece nor its characters. Those easier laughs exact too high a price. Barnes needs to keep her eyes on realism. Even if we stipulate that a 911 operator serving the New York intersection of Prince and Broadway is so racist as to not give a darn about a group of young black women with an emergency on the street and refuse to send help, the operators are not going to answer “We have an emergency” with: “What’s the ethnicity?” They’re at least first going to say, “What’s the emergency?” The lines are recorded; racists for the most part have learned to be subtle. And in the last 10 minutes, you feel like Barnes had plotted her last moment, but not what happened right before.
All smallish stuff, but this play otherwise feels so true, it’s worth the attention. “BLKS” really is laugh-out-loud funny, all night long. At times, it feels like Barnes maybe wanted to pen a screenplay or a teleplay, and I would not be surprised if she moves in those directions, but Garrett directs this show so well that her work (and Sibyl Wickersheimer’s clever set, a savvy combo of gentrification and retro brutality) provides a theatrical counterbalance.
Everyone in this show from Cooper to Davis to the self-satirizing Kelly O’Sullivan feels totally live.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “BLKS” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Jan. 28
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $20-$89 at 312-335-1650 and