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Magnificent friendships come to life amid the fabulous chaos of ‘BLKS’

Nora Carroll (Octavia, from left), Leea Ayers (June) and Celeste M. Cooper (Imani) star in Steppenwolf’s production of "BLKS." | Michael Brosilow

It’s difficult to sum up the impact of Aziza Barnes’ raw, blistering, hilarious and enraging “BLKS.” It is by far an bracingly deep dive into intricacies, absurdities and boisterous contradictions of female friendship. And not, praise be, female friendship of the obnoxious “Girls” variety. With twentysomething New Yorkers Octavia, June, Ry and Imani, Barnes creates a quartet whose personalities are a glorious tangle of complexities.

Highly Recommended
When: Through Jan. 28, 2018
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: Steppenwolf.org

These women are joyous, smart, messy, unabashedly sexual, self-absorbed and recklessly generous. Directed by Nataki Garrett, “BLKS” offers a portrait of young women of color navigating their lives with equal parts smarts and sorrow, bitterness and jubilance.

Barnes’ plot unfolds in mid-April, 2015, in the days leading up to the murder of Freddie Gray. We initially meet Octavia (Nora Carroll) and her lover Ry (Danielle Davis) as the two women getting busy in their New York apartment, giggling as they shuck their clothes. Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) is studying Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” in the next room, prepping for her stand-up act.

Two crises unfold in short order: First, Octavia discovers a genital mole, sending her down a spiral twined around the possibility that she might have some kind of cancer that might require a clitorectomy. Next, June (Leea Ayers) bursts in like a hurricane, delivering a gale-force monologue about discovering a table set with Popeye’s chicken for two at her boyfriend’s apartment. It would seem that nothing points to infidelity quite so brazenly as two half-eaten chicken dinners.

In an era when social media allows people to curate their lives into an endless array of Very Special Hallmark Moments, “BLKS” gives us women screaming (sometimes literally) with ragged authenticity. Warts, moles and all, the women of “BLKS” do not edit themselves. They are unfiltered and unfettered, and they are magnificent and fascinating because of it.

Barnes’ plot sounds almost inconsequential. Octavia finds the mole. June laments her man’s infidelity. Imani works on her comedy routine. They all go out to a club where they encounter men (all played by Namir Smallwood) who are both vile (a would-be rapist) and kind (a gallant nerd). Octavia works through the terror of a possible operation. June celebrates landing a fantastic new job.

Kelly O’Sullivan (left) and Celeste M. Cooper in a scene from Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “BLKS.” | Michael Brosilow

With one horrifying exception, “BLKS” is centered on people rather than events. As for that exception, it’s an event that happens both far away from the play’s setting yet near its symbolic heart. In the women’s sober reaction to it, Barnes speaks volumes about the state of the nation.

Yet even as Octavia, Imani, June and Ry are forced to cope with murderous violence and anger-fomenting injustice, “BLKS” never loses its razor-sharp wit.

Garrett’s cast is remarkable, both as an airtight ensemble and in the actors’ ability to breathe life into their respective characters. As June, Ayers will have you rooting for her, both as high-powered corporate accountant and a deeply wounded woman scorned.

Carroll nails the fear Octavia must contend with as her mole-removal surgery looms and the fearlessness that she deploys when getting her sexual needs met. Cooper nearly steals the show as Imani, the would-be comedian whose material is rooted in childhood tragedy. And as the various men the women encounter, Smallwood is alternately chilling and endearing.

With “BLKS,” Barnes puts a spotlight a group that’s a relative rarity in popular culture: Women of color whose lives are defined by their relationships to each other. It makes for a rambunctious, brilliant and thought-provoking evening.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Namir Smallwood (from left), Leea Ayers and Danielle Davis star in Aziza Barnes’ “BLKS” at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow