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BLKS

Young women pursue their best lives in the debut of Aziza Barnes's play.

Nora Carroll, Leea Ayers and Celeste M. Cooper in Aziza Barnes's BLKS, directed by Nataki Garrett, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

The plot of BLKS, written by twentysomething poet Aziza Barnes, is secondary to the feeling it encapsulates: being in your early 20s in the big city, simultaneously powerless and invincible. That's not to say the story is inconsequential — each character discovers something that packs an emotional wallop — but it is simply a series of moments, each one fresh, raw, and deeply felt.

Octavia (Nora Carroll) is a screenwriter, working on an independent film produced and directed by Ry (Danielle Davis) — her lover, partner, and friend. Octavia lives with Imani (Celeste M. Cooper), a comedian who is intent on re-creating Eddie Murphy's Raw, and June (Leea Ayers), who has a mathematics degree and a history of cotillions. They work menial jobs to self-finance their artistic endeavors and they self-medicate with blunts and whiskey. They love and they fight and they get fed up, in blazing detail.

It's hard to think of four more exciting young actors than the ones onstage at Steppenwolf's upstairs theater. As Octavia, Carroll reaches comedic and dramatic heights, especially alongside the talented Davis as Ry. Cooper is a comedic powerhouse, whether imitating Murphy or egging on her friends' misadventures, and Ayers simply tears the stage up as an ambitious woman scorned. In supporting roles, Namir Smallwood is versatile as a variety of male characters, ranging from threatening to pitiful to scene-stealingly sleazy, and Kelly O'Sullivan is riotous as a fumbling white girl desperate to be acknowledged for her progressive, P.C. outlook.

The design of BLKS is every bit as successful as its casting. Sibyl Wickersheimer's set manages to capture the feel of a cramped and seedy three-bedroom apartment without seeming claustrophobic or limiting the action. Along with lighting by Marcus Doshi, projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson set the tone and supplement the story, whether showing an excursion to a nightclub or the latest viral video of police brutality. When it all comes together in the end, with T. Carlis Roberts's soundscape, the effect is palpable.

There are some small narrative moments that stumble in the second act, but even they are a pleasure to watch as performed by Ayers, Carroll, Cooper, and Davis. These four women have a rapport so strong that it could sustain countless seasons of a hangout sitcom. The comedic gems in BLKS are polished to shine by director Nataki Garrett (the opening scene contains some of the best onstage physical comedy of the year, and the hits keep on coming), and the dramatic moments are grounded and given room to breathe. The result is a perfectly paced two hours without a single misspent moment. Joyful stories about queer women and women of color are too hard to come by, but BLKS is joyful even when it's breaking your heart.

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