Saturday, May 18, 2019

13 (2019-2020): Review: BLKS (seen May 17, 2019)

“Clit Lit”

At the opening of poet-playwright Aziza Barnes’s Blks, a farce with serious aspirations that squeezed barely three titters from me, the amplified sounds of a woman reaching orgasm fill the MCC’s Newman Mills Theater. The sounds of pleasure are emanating from Octavia (Paige Gilbert), one of three, female, black roommates sharing a flat somewhere near the adjoining neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The woman responsible for driving Octavia to the heights of ecstasy is her Latina girlfriend, Ry (Coral Peña).  
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alfie Fuller, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
But the depth of that relationship is immediately questioned when Octavia, in the bathroom, notices a tiny mole on her clitoris and asks Ry to take a close look at it. Despite her mouth having been in exactly that place only minutes before, Ry can’t muster more than a reluctant “Ew.” This quickly gets her pushed out the door before she can even put on her shoes.
Paige Gilbert. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
The out-of-work writer Octavia’s on again, off again, on again troubles with Ry are echoed by the problems of her equally 20ish roomies, each needing to spend a girls’ night together clubbing as a way to deal with their separate issues. That night forms the spine of the 90-minute play, which had its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
Marie Botha, Alfie Fuller. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Imani (Alfie Fuller), Octavia’s partner in making a movie, similarly unemployed, is determined to create a standup act copied from Eddie Murphy’s Raw album. When she bombs badly at the Nuyorican Café, a white girl she met at a club—whom Barnes can do no better than to dub That Bitch on the Couch (Marié Botha)—interprets it as a genius work of comedic deconstruction in the vein of Andy Kaufman. But, before they can hit it off, they have to navigate the shoals of the white woman’s awkward naivete in becoming intimate with a black one.
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
The third roommate, June (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a “consultant to accountants” with a degree in mathematics, is taken advantage of by her serial cheater of a boyfriend, Jamal. She’s brassy enough, however, to intervene when she sees a man misusing a woman in the street, an action that lands her a shot to the cheek. After she meets Justin (Chris Myers), a “nice” guy at the aforementioned club, who fixes her heel, he follows her home and climbs the fire escape to her bedroom window, where she lets him in. Before he arrived, she’d been dealing with her depression over Jamal by listening to music while wearing a white cotillion getup that looks like a wedding gown.
Chris Myers, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Justin, for his part, winds up, not in her arms, but doing to Octavia what Ry did at the top of the play. That’s because Octavia, who’s having an operation on that mole in the morning, refuses to call it a night until, as she puts it, she’s fucked. What goes around, cums around.

This is more or less the essence of Blks, which piles on exaggerated situations but lacks a well-wrought plot, revels in broad sitcom tropes, and uses boldly raunchy dialogue (with continual iterations of the “n-word”), all of it spoken by well-educated, weed-smoking, Bacardi and Maker’s Mark-swilling women, who mingle intelligent discourse with the most outrageous black street talk.
Coral Pena. Photo Deen Van Meer.
Scattershot mentions of social issues, mostly racial ones, pop up and then subside—like the sudden intrusion late in the play of a report about another black person being shot—but nothing can disguise the familiar, if perfectly reasonable, overarching theme of the difficulty in finding love and being loved in return.

Blks is directed by Robert O’Hara with overly pumped up performances in which quiet moments of human connection are only rarely to be found. Shouting too often substitutes for conversation and the takeaway effect suggests that the actors are performing not to create a believable stage reality but more like they’re pushing to be funny for a small TV studio audience.

Only Justin, captured by Myers in the standout performance, seems real as he tries to find his bearings among these women who, for all the pressures on them, can’t help coming across as obnoxious, argumentative, self-centered, rude, and immature. And when Ry settles down to explain why she’s so fond of Octavia, her sentimental account of her girlfriends’ actions seems miles from the person we’ve been watching all along.
Alfie Fuller, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
O’Hara’s hyperactive staging employs a tiresomely revolving set by Clint Ramos that tries to keep pace with the multiple locales but succeeds only in drawing attention to itself. For those like me, though, seated several rows from the stage on the extreme left side of the overly wide venue, the sight lines are decidedly second-rate. (I experienced something similar from the other side during Alice By Heart.) Dede Avite has fun with the costumes she’s created, including an eye-catching sheath worn by the stunning Crowe-Legacy, and Alex Jainchill’s lighting helps emphasize the comic spirit.
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Paige Gilbert, Alfie Fuller. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Indeed, the audience reaction when I went was notably positive, with laughs, many really loud, arriving as regularly as if they were canned. It was, in fact, the kind of response that made both my plus-one and me feel both too old and too white to fully appreciate Blks.
Alfie Fuller, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Photo: Deen Van Meer.

The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Newman Mills Theater
500 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through June 2