BLKS at Speakeasy Stage
December 2, 2021 | By Michelle Musili
Since the mid-2010s, we’ve seen a proliferation in media from diverse creators. Artists like Donald Glover and Issa Rae have created TV shows that center Blackness and the perspectives of our own experiences without attempting to explain it to white audiences. Spike Lee and Berry Jenkins have brought similar ideas to cinema for decades. This advancement, however, has been slow to come to the theatre scene. That is, until Aziza Barnes’ 2020 play, BLKS.
Illustrations by Michelle Musili
BLKS follows three twenty-something Black women, June, Imani, and Octavia, and their adventures on a night out in New York City. We follow these women as they confront their demons, pushy men, as well as subtle and overt racism while simply trying to have a good time. The show made its New England premiere at Speakeasy Stage this November, starring Thomika Marie Bridwell, Kelsey Fonise, and Shanelle Chloe Villegas, and was directed by Tonasia Jones.
The first thing you notice about BLKS is that it is absolutely hilarious. Within the first 5 minutes of the show, the script had me in tears from laughter. The second thing you notice is how natural this script is. It feels like listening to friends speak: they make references to their favorite media, they argue in petty, realistic ways, and they interject and cut over one another in the same ways real conversations happen.
Each of the three main characters is written with a beautiful amount of depth. They are unique and funny, and they showcase the fact that Blackness is not one thing. They have varying interests, some of which are seen as stereotypically white and/or masculine, like Call of Duty or Star Trek. Two of the main characters are queer and their love interests are women. These characters are not defined by their identity but enriched by it, which is incredibly refreshing to see in any media.
Every performance was authentic and amazing. The naturalistic dialogue presents a challenge for the actors, but they make the script feel real. The three main actresses embody their roles completely and shine on stage with charisma and chemistry. The supporting cast was fantastic as well, with standouts Sandra Seonie-Seri as Ry and Sharmarke Yousef as Justin/Ethnically Ambiguous Dude/Sosa. Yousef’s performance was especially impressive, as he plays three very different characters. Each of his characters has an entirely different physicality so that it is immediately apparent which character walks on stage.
Along with the actors, the production team did an incredible job with the stage. It was relatively small but the production team managed to make an expressive, fluid set that was able to function as the girls’ apartment, the club, the street, and an open mic. During scene changes, actors would move the set pieces in character through actions such as dancing or weight lifting. The music throughout the play added to the experience immensely. Classic mid-2010s rap and hip-hop songs were played throughout the show, using songs like “B*tch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna and “I Don’t F*ck With You” by Big Sean.
This show is Black and queer, and it revels in it. It is both specific in the experience being portrayed and universal in its themes. I spoke to Sandra Seone-Seri after a showing and they, too, expressed that they wish there were more shows like this. As a Black person who used to be involved in theater, I know that if more shows were like this, there’d be a much larger and more diverse audience and community for theatre.
Illustrations by Michelle Musili
The strangest thing about experiencing this show is the audience. Theatre has long been an art largely attended by older, white audiences. Even in seeing this show, I was one of maybe 15 people of color in a large audience. In some ways, this is good. I love that people are coming to see a show that will broaden their worldview.
On the other hand, it feels weird to be in a majority white audience. One of the biggest themes of this play is how Black women in particular aren’t allowed to be seen as people. In a solemn moment after June is assaulted on the street and then ignored by the cops, Octavia angrily screams out at the audience about how they are not seen as human. Imani simply remarks, “look around.” Soft lights come up on the audience and the characters merely sit in the moment. The double meaning becomes clear immediately. Not only are we seen as secondary in the real world; we’re also the minority within our own spaces. This production choice shook me as an audience member, especially being the sole Black person in my row.
This show is so incredibly important to me. As queer Black women and nonbinary folk, we are often not allowed to see ourselves written through the lens of fellow Black queer people. Even in the media made by Black creators, very few of them delve into the Black queer experience specifically. This play has allowed me to see myself on the stage. Through the events of a single night, BLKS manages to capture the joy and the despair and everything in between of being a Black woman in a world not built to accommodate you. We dance, we cry, we scream, and we live. This play shows all of that in a hilarious, heartbreaking, side-splitting 110 minutes.