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A CurtainUp Review

"Why would you say that?"
"Because you're rude."
"I know, but you didn't have to say shit!"

(L–R) Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Paige Gilbert, and Alfie Fuller (Photo: Deen van Meer)
As the Millennial generation comes of age, the cultural landscape—television especially—has exploded with a proliferation of stories about twenty-somethings living in big cities and trying to figure it all out. While hardly the genesis of the genre, an unmistakable flashpoint was HBO's GIRLS, which was often criticized for its depiction of white privilege and lack of diversity. Just on HBO alone, that discussion helped spawn Looking (about a group of gay men in the Bay Area) and Insecure (which focuses on two Black women in LA).

Aziza Barnes's BLKS seems to offer a rejoinder of its own to GIRLS, bringing the story back to New York and using a similar sort of title that foregrounds how one element of these women's identities instantly shapes who they are in the eyes of the world around them.

Now making its New York premiere at MCC with Robert O'Hara directing, BLKS has many of the trappings of a typical "Millennial angst" story, with questions of how to navigate friendship, love, and finding one's purpose all featured prominently. But it takes a more novel approach in inextricably connecting those questions with what it means to be a Black woman in present-day America—to live, but not to belong, as Imani (Alfie Fuller) puts it.

What Barnes has created is an entertaining look at a day in the life of three friends—Imani, Octavia (Paige Gilbert), and June (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy)—that gestures towards the outrageousness of a bedroom farce as well as the outrages of current events.

In this world concerns big and small coexist and intermingle, building from minor challenges of relationships or sex to health scares all the way up to racism and systemic injustice. All of this, the play suggests, is intrinsic to understanding the world these Black women inhabit; a work about their lives cannot be strictly a comedy, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a tragedy.

No matter the topic, it's addressed in a way that feels natural and human. Barnes's snappy dialogue is brought to vivid life by the three lead performers, and O'Hara enhances the production with the same sensitivity to nuance and timing that was also recently on display in his direction of Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play (review). He adopts a judicious approach (perhaps to the surprise of critics of his own plays), knowing where to exercise restraint and where to go all out.

Barnes emphasizes the fragility and vulnerability of these three friends, but this manifests itself in incredibly different ways for each character. Gilbert's Octavia is blunt, open, and usually self-assured, but freezes up in the face of serious questions about her relationship with Ry (Coral Peña). Imani uses humor as a shield; Fuller illuminates how her character deflects to hide deeper emotions. For June, who first enters after learning her boyfriend is cheating on her, Crowe-Legacy charts a path through rage to sadness to fearful uncertainty.

While the supporting characters are a bit more likely to come off as means to an end for the three primary ones (sometimes more deliberately than others), they round out a universally strong cast, which also includes Chris Myers as several male characters and Marié Botha as "That Bitch on the Couch," the play's only white character. That wonderfully reductive name is a signal of how Barnes flips the usual script, moving a white character into the background and using the role to further a Black character's journey of self-discovery.

O'Hara has brought much of the design team from Slave Play along with him, achieving similarly successful results. Clint Ramos's rotating set is vividly detailed and, along with the lights by Alex Jainchill, further showcases the potential of the beautiful new MCC space. Dede Ayite has designed costumes that map with precision to each character's personality. A contemporary sound design by Palmer Hefferan nicely fleshes out the world and mood of the play.

As another Millennial narrative, there's a lot to like about BLKS. The script—funny yet thoughtful, raunchy but human—marks a promising playwrighting debut from Barnes (who has primarily worked in poetry). But the play also stands outside the genre as much as within it, casting a valuable light on the realities so often overlooked by such stories. Its thoughtfulness and moments of poignancy are skillfully realized through strong direction and an able cast, giving this compelling new work the production it deserves.

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BLKS by Aziza Barnes
Directed by Robert O'Hara

Cast: Marié Botha (That Bitch on the Couch), Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (June), Alfie Fuller (Imani), Paige Gilbert (Octavia), Coral Peña (Ry), and Chris Myers (Justin)
Scenic Design: Clint Ramos
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Alex Jainchill
Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Intimacy and Fight Director: Claire Warden
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Production Stage Manager: Brett Anders
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
MCC Theater, Newman Mills Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues)
Tickets: $35–94; (646) 506-9393,, or in person at the theater
From 4/23/2019; opened 5/9/2019; closing 6/02.2019
Performance times: Tuesdays–Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 5/4/2019 performance

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