THE ROBERT W. WILSON MCC THEATER SPACE
To the growing list of playwrights of color pushing the boundaries of contemporary theater, you can happily add the name of Aziza Barnes. Is it any wonder they attracted the attention of director Robert O'Hara? No, it is not. He's given BLKS a solid showcase that also shows off the versatility of the mainstage at the relatively new Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. This was my first visit to the latest addition in NYC's collection of artistic spaces but it won't be my last. And this was my first chance to see a work by Barnes but it surely won't be my last for that either.
In this broad but pointed comedy, Octavia is having a bad day. She (Paige Gilbert) freaks out over a mole on her clitoris; it wasn't there yesterday. When her lover/friend with benefits/whatever Ry (Coral Peña) demurs when asked to play amateur gynecologist and see what's what, Octavia has had enough. She ends their brief fling/burgeoning romance (I don't know what to call it because neither does Octavia). When her roommate June Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) barges in and reveals her boyfriend has cheated on her (again) and a relative of Octavia says the potentially cancerous mole needs to be dealt with right away, they and fellow roomie Imani (Alfie Fuller) agree there's only one solution. Day drinking, rolling a blunt and generally partying up.
What follows is almost a roundelay of sexual entanglements, hilarious banter and the unwelcome but inevitable downer of reality intruding in on the fun via a violent confrontation on the streets and social media updates on the latest killing of a young black man.
Unlike other recent plays, BLKS doesn't become extravagantly out there or form-breaking. It's not a series of sketches but a well-constructed play with characters bouncing off one another in unexpected, revealing ways and a joyous sense of sisterhood. Even when they are practically swapping potential partners, you never doubt Octavia, June and Imani have each others backs. And while the humor is broad and turned up, unlike Barnes we never doubt its essential seriousness either.
O'Hara oversees the show with affection but several elements hold it back. This is probably a three star play hemmed in by certain choices. The scenic design by Clint Ramos is a trickster in its own right. The stage is wide and deep but the central space of the shared living room in their apartment is presented at a cramped, odd angle. It's puzzling until it rotates again and again, almost going widescreen as Ramos reveals a bathroom, bedrooms, a club and even a city street with subway entrances. And yet it both felt over-elaborate and attention-grabbing to me. You shouldn't be thinking about the sets as much as you do here.
Worse, two roles are poorly cast. Marié Botha as That Bitch On The Couch is merely ok as a clueless white woman bedeviled by what's appropriate for her to say. She's not bad and her interaction with Imani turns that character from a seemingly dippy sort into someone much more interesting. And yet, I couldn't help feeling the part deserved someone stronger. And Octavia's love interest Ry was mishandled entirely by Peña, who is making her Off Broadway debut and proved very uncomfortable onstage. Her body movement, her line deliveries, literally everything about her proved awkward, never more so than a key monologue at the climax she barely delivered much less brought to life.
The three leads were much better, with Fuller revealing depths to Imani, Crowe-Legacy full-on Amazonian as she straddled the stage with her personality and take-command voice and Gilbert anchored it all with ease as the conflicted but decent Octavia. Playing a string of male characters but mostly the nerdy, off-beat Justin (a guy who befriends June in a club), Chris Myers is scene-stealing good from start to finish. For a play centered on women, Barnes gifts him with a terrific showcase and Myers (and his abs, a key visual punchline in one scene) makes the most of it.
I wish Barnes had trusted their own talents as much. News alerts about the gunning down of young black men by the police both early on and at the end felt like an unnecessary attempt to prove the play had serious intent. I never doubted it, thanks to that more organic inclusion of a burst of violence on the street and the wickedly funny taunting Imani gives to the white woman she flirts with. Yet even at the end, Barnes insists on a string of monologues that come from a different world than the colorful comedy they created and made us care about.
Indeed, Barnes has a gift for character and dialogue -- when the the man Justin interacts with June but then feels even more complex after following her home and then interacts hilariously with Octavia in yet another unexpected but believable way, it's a sign of great potential. Barnes is a promising playwright but after delivering three women in a setting I'd be glad to return to, TV might just be in their future too.
NOTE: It's not every day NYC gets a new theater space. Check out this quick peek of The Robert W Wilson MCC Theater Space.
THEATER OF 2019
Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.