Writer: Aziza Barnes
Director: Robert O’Hara
As one enters MCC’s Robert W. Wilson Theater space, the bass pumping, rhythms pulsating, and trap music seducing the eardrums, one cannot help but wonder if this is the correct place. Is this the Off-Broadway theatre where Aziza Barnes’ BLKS is being performed? Yes, it is. And as the play unravels, it all makes sense. Palmer Hefferan’s sound design is deliberate and astoundingly purposeful! And LOUD! But in a good way.
The spot-on scene design of Clint Ramos aptly adds to unrelenting chaos that ensues at almost every moment on stage. He is able to capture the gritty, claustrophobic, and sometimes crass atmosphere of urban New York. He has his work cut, too-there are at least five different playing areas. Whether it is a club scene, an apartment, or a Brooklyn street, he renders authenticity in every area.
Award winning writer-director Robert O’Hara, who is no stranger to pushing the envelope, evident in his 2014 hit play, Booty Candy, which found great success in Chicago and New York, has found a perfect match. O’Hara unleashes the poet-turned-playwright’s debut play for the world to take…or leave. Judging from the laughter and verbal response from the audience, most of the crowd chose to take it.
Aziza’s dialogue is not for the faint of heart. It is raw, honest, and, at times, unapologetically coarse. All of the actors do an applaudable job at letting the characters live onstage. We see them unsnarl moment by moment. We see what connects them as friends and differentiates them from one another. And it is not always easy to have empathy for these characters because they often come off as angry, bitter women. No. Angry, bitter black women. But as the often dire and discouraging circumstances unfurl, one realizes that these characters are stuck. Stuck in a paradigm that has them in a box. A box that sometimes expands and contracts, nonetheless, a box. The bright side of this dilemma is that they are smart, resourceful, and they have each other’s backs. Also, although It is never verified, they are also on the younger side of life, probably mid-twenties, so they have time to see the error of their ways. Or help their persecutors so the error of THEIR ways.
A weak area in the play is the occasional campiness. Maybe it is a decision to help bring levity to heavy moments. For example, Chris Myers who plays Justin, a kind of a dimwit who always carries a man-purse filled with emergency-ready items such as Chapstick, Super Glue, and an eye mask (for sleeping) and excels in the quirkiness of the role. However, the camp can also make some of the comedic moments borderline minstrel-like. And though farce is the aim, the delivery of the comedy lacks total cohesion. Additionally, the backstory of the main characters also lacks fullness; although toward the end of the play one of the characters begins divulging why she is very sullen over an item she owns, but by then the story is ending. Right now, we know they live in urban New York, fighting against the odds, but we hardly know where they have been and we don’t see them change from the beginning of the play to the end.
All in all, BLKS is definitely worth seeing; for one gets to be a fly on the wall, experiencing the pressures, pain, and love of these young women.
Runs until June 2, 2019 | Photo credit: Deen Van Mer