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In American theaters, it’s rare to encounter a production featuring three modern black women leads—who are not blood relatives—that examines their friendship and the chaos in their lives.
Aziza Barnes’ BLKS, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is a welcome exception to that rule.
The play, directed at Woolly byNataki Garrett, stars three black women of various shades, body shapes, sexualities and belief systems. With their love lives in shambles, twentysomething Octavia and her friends June and Imani decide to have a night out. The night becomes an epic journey into the morning full of all the stress, truth, and agony of trying, and failing, to be an adult in New York City.
Around every corner in BLKS, hilarity ensues, and it comes from unexpected places: genital moles, cash apps, and the hijinks of Justin, the lone named male character. The brilliant cast breathes life into their counterparts, with Cyndii Johnson as the boisterous and fearless Octavia, Tatiana Williams as the accomplished but fragile June, and Shannon Dorsey as would-be standup comic Imani. Alina Collins Maldonado as Octavia’s exasperated on again-off again partner Ry, Justin Weaks as the unfailingly entertaining Justin, and Madeline Joey Rose as the clueless girl on the couch round out the cast.
This production succeeds at being many things at once. It’s a vibrant, juicy comedy with profound dramatic moments that references everything from Eddie Murphy’s Raw to How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It is at once a celebration and a declaration of hopes and dreams and sex and love and sadness. BLKS is complex, like we all are, and like black women are rarely shown to be in this and many other art forms.
The show doesn’t shy away from that perceived lack of black humanity and complexity: Its characters often talk to each other about the stress of being black and all that comes with it.
The right audience can make a show even better, and my audience was full of head nods, snaps, claps, and affirming exclamations. In BLKS, black women are being seen and heard and felt.
Perhaps most importantly, the women on stage are modern American black women. The show is not a slavery narrative or a story of the fight for civil rights. It’s not about black servitude or despair, though racial pain and solidarity are unavoidable topics in a show so unapologetically about the black experience.
The stories that black artists want to tell about American slavery, servitude, and the fight for civil rights need not ever stop being told—those legacies are deep in black bones and impossible to separate from the black experience in this country. But in mainstream media, it is also important for people to move to the present and look to the future. Who are we as a people now? What will we become?
Barnes’ play is a joy ride from start to finish with a grand opening and even grander conclusion. It’s unstoppably funny, relatable, and sometimes incredibly bare and vulnerable. Like any good play, it contains multitudes. More than anything, it feels like a deeply personal story about the black women of now. By the end of BLKS, after the raucous applause as the cast bows, there is also hope that this is the kind of fully human story we will see in the future.
To March 3 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$97. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.