Review: 'BLKS' Makes for Lumpy Blend of Comedy and Commentary

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday November 9, 2021

Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise and Thomika Marie Bridwell in "BLKS"
Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise and Thomika Marie Bridwell in "BLKS"  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

Aziza Barnes' "BLKS" is unusual mostly because of its format: This Millennials-buddy comedy is usually the stuff of film and television. It would be easy to see how this intermissionless, 110-minute play could turn up as an indie film or a streaming series, where it would be richer in themes and fuller in characterization. On the stage, "BLKS" is a lumpy mix of cultural observations mixed with farce about the lives of its three protagonists — 20-something Black women living in Brooklyn — over a weekend of drinking and getting high.

There are a few reasons for their binge. Octavia (Shanelle Chloe Villegas), an aspiring gay filmmaker, discovers a mole on her clitoris that spirals her into a health crisis. June (Thomika Marie Bridwell), a more straight-laced accounting consultant, catches her bf cheating on her for the eleventh time that year (which she reveals in a hilarious monologue that she describes as a "bad UPN drama.") As for Imani (Kelsey Fonise), she's anxious about an upcoming stand-up gig in which she plans on presenting a portion of Eddie Murphy's "RAW," so what better way to deal with their mutual problems than getting completely fucked up?

Their night out takes them from their Brooklyn apartment to Manhattan, where June is assaulted when confronting a man for assaulting a woman on a subway platform. Octavia has her panties stolen in a bizarre hookup with a stranger in a club. (He said he wanted to give her head, but only wanted to steal her panties.) She also catches Ry (Sandra Seoane-Serí), her partner (or girlfriend, or fuck buddy), flirting with a white woman, which leads to a confrontation about the nature of their relationship.

Imani meets a white woman to whom she is attracted, in spite of her cluelessness about race. She also flops miserably with her stand-up. June drunkenly laments her unhappy state by dressing in a cotillion dress at 3 am. Earlier, she had met a quirky man on the street, Justin (Sharmarke Yusuf), who fixed her broken heel and followed her home. His presence leads to a funny situation involving the drunk Octavia, who comes home and asks him to inspect her worrisome mole.

Thomika Marie Bridwell and Sharmarke Yusuf in "BLKS"
Thomika Marie Bridwell and Sharmarke Yusuf in "BLKS"  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

"BLKS" is not without comic incidents — they come fast and furious — but they don't fully come together in the SpeakEasy Stage production, which felt tentative in its raucousness. There is little doubt that the play pushes buttons with its onstage depiction of cunnilingus and its raunchy dialogue, but director Tonasia Jones doesn't so much mine the farcical elements as underplay them, and the comedy doesn't pop in the outrageous way it should. Instead, Jones underscores the more serious elements, which give the play its cultural insights at the cost of the comedy.

A longer format — such as a series — could mitigate this with farce, segueing to seriousness when granted a more leisurely place; plus, there would more be backstory — why are these three very different women roommates in the first place? "BLKS" only hints at the women's backstories as it rushes forward with its farcical narrative.

But it is not without some hard observations about how they see themselves in society, which is, they observe, barely visible. When June is assaulted, Imani calls the police, only to be told that there are no officers available to come to their aid. "Seems like all y'all want us to do is twerk and die!" says Octavia.

The biggest challenge for the cast is to play broadly while rooting the drama in reality. Shanelle Chloe Villegas conveys Octavia's anxiety in a suitably over-the-top manner, and has good chemistry with Sandra Seoane-Serí as her on again/off again gf. Thomika Marie Bridwell makes June both funny and sad, especially when drunk and inexplicably wearing a white ball gown. Kelsey Fonise nails the tough, if conflicted, Imani; Meghan Hornblower is quite good as the clueless white women the trio come into contact with over the evening; and Sharmarke Yusuf moves from menacing to quirkily hilarious as the various men, most specifically the oddball Justin, who carries Krazy Glue and a sewing kit on his night out to the club.

The play's various locations (the women's Brooklyn apartment, clubs, the subway) are crowded onto Jenna McFarland Lord's graffiti-strewn set, with lighting by Kat C. Zhou and costumes by Cassandra Queen; this functions well enough. But the production's biggest problem is that it isn't just big enough, or really quick enough. With longish scene changes, the play clocks in at 110 minutes. When it was produced in New York City two years ago, it clocked in at 90 minutes. It's hard not to think that these 20 minutes would make a difference in making this a stronger production.

But the medium is the essential problem. "BLKS" would be better served on film or television, where the R-rated blend of comedy and drama could breathe, and these characters could be more nuanced.

"BLKS" continues through November 20 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].