'That's Not Me.' How Actress Shanelle Chloe Villegas Connected with her 'BLKS' Character

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 8, 2021

Noted poet Aziza Barnes is also a playwright, having authored the acclaimed "BLKS" (pronounced "Blacks"). The play follows a group of four friends who fall all across the LGBTQ+ spectrum: Octavia is a queer woman of mixed heritage, her father hailing from Cornwall, England. Imani is Haitian, and a fan of standup comedy, especially Eddie Murphy. June is straight, or at least is dating, and deeply, if dysfunctionally, entangled with a man named Jamal. And then there's Ry, who is described in the script's character notes as being a "butch femme, landing in a mostly androgynous aesthetic."

Structured as a "day in the life" comedy, "BLKS" nevertheless packs a range of hot-button social topics into its storyline, beginning with a sexual encounter between Octavia and Ry (they are in a sort of unofficially official relationship) that leads into a health-related panic (which I won't spoil here). Relationship issues instantly ensue, and the prospect of a breakup looms, meaning that Imani and June must stage an intervention in the form of a girls' night out that takes them to a club, and an evening in which they're destined to encounter clueless white people, males both toxic and love-struck, and, ultimately, each other... and themselves. The play unfolds to the rhythms and rich language of Barnes' poetic talents, and the language — like the rest of the play — is direct, unsparing, and unapologetic. Even on the page, "BLKS" is a tour de force.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas is one of the cast members who brings the play from the page to the stage, playing Octavia. EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with Villegas about Barnes' play, its heightened language, and its many incisive, sometimes prickly, insights.

EDGE: How did you come to play the part of Octavia? Did you hear about the play, and you had to do it? Did the people at SpeakEasy approach you for the part?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: I read the play before I was ever cast in it; I read it maybe six times before I even auditioned. And I didn't think that I would play Octavia. I really thought I was more similar to Ry. And then Tonasia Jones, the director, was like, "I want you to be Octavia." And I was, "What?" She was the farthest character from what I could related to — or, so I thought at the time. So, I think it was definitely more on SpeakEasy's end, of seeing something in me that I could not see in myself.

EDGE: Octavia is described in the play's notes as "deeply awkward," an "introvert," and a "super dork." It's all quite endearing, but do you feel those descriptions actually fit you?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: Originally, no. The description of her is, " 'Star Trek' lover, and can quote Blaxploitation films." I was like, "That's not me." I was imagining her as being cringeworthy awkward. So, it took me a little while to find access points to each of those descriptors.

I definitely think I'm a nerd — I'm a lover of anime. We connect there. But I think through writing an autobiography for Octavia, I could connect with her on the level of being a writer, and how that makes someone feel introverted and can make them be awkward in social settings. Basically, I wrote that Octavia has a really odd relationship with her father. And that, mixed with being queer, and knowing it as a young child but not being able to express that, made her feel introverted and lean toward writing, because she could create whatever she wanted on the page. And in my personal life, I too have felt those things.

EDGE: So in that way, you could say that the description that says "the world is in her head" made the character a better fit for you.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: Yeah, for sure, especially if I felt misplaced in real life socially — if I felt different, then writing is where I can fit in. I'm creating a place where I can fit in.

EDGE: The notes specify that Octavia is not out to her parents. Was that something that you could identify with and channel into your performance, or is it more the kind of deep background information that doesn't necessarily come into the mix?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: I think it is information that is absolutely in the subtext of the play. I don't think it's ever explicit — they don't say, "You never came out to your parents yet! It's making me upset!"

EDGE: Right. It's not a Lifetime movie.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: Yeah, exactly. I personally am queer in real life and when I read it the first few times I kind of overlooked the fact that Octavia is queer and hasn't come out yet. l was just, like, "Oh, they're queer and they're in their twenties, and they're with their friends, and they're proud of it — yeah!"

But then I was watching Paige Gilbert, who played Octavia at MCC Theater in New York. She has with this YouTube special that she did about like her own struggles coming out and realizing what her sexuality is, and I was like, "Oh, my God, I have totally been there!" And I completely forgot about that.


Because I'm not there anymore. But I remember — not so much with my family, coming out, but just, like, accepting who I am as queer, and actually saying I'm queer, was a very long process. For a long time. I was like, "No labels," you know, like Octavia is. "I'm just a human who likes humans," you know?

And just feeling so awkward in that identity, and knowing that I am hurting someone that I love who is proud of that identity, like Octavia is in the midst of, because I can't quite be proud of that identity, or I don't fully know what it is, and because of the shame that society puts on it.

EDGE: Before writing "BLKS," Aziza Barnes had made their name as a poet. Do you see a poetic sensibility in the play?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I do write poetry and I think a lot of the poetry [in the play] happens in the monologues. But I also think just the way the play is written is very Shakespearean in the sense that the people in the play are uninhibited to speak their truth. Like, they might not say their truth immediately, but they're gonna say all the swears and all the things to get there, which is very Shakespearean. It is the heightened language that can stop them from speaking their truth.

I didn't actually know Aziza Barnes before reading the play, and I only read the play because I saw Tonasia was doing it. My fiancée got it for me. Each time I read it, it's funnier and funnier — I could not put it down. I definitely think that there's poetry that finds its way throughout. I think the whole thing is poetic.

EDGE: Like you say, there's a heightened quality to the language. Do you find that it can be hard to immerse yourself in that and flow with it? Or is there a certain point where you just click into it, and the play's language carries you away?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: It's weird, because the text is so natural to me as a person, but then sometimes there might be external pressures to make it sing, to make each line be exactly what it is like. I know what it's supposed to be when I read it, but then sometimes when I rehearse it, it doesn't always land. So that pressure to make it land, to make it sing, to keep the integrity of the line or the monologue, sometimes that makes it difficult to drop in and make it click each night.

Which I think is pretty similar to Shakespeare, but then there's something about performing in front of an audience that it all just goes wild inside of you. You do a pass once and go, "Oh, that was basic." And then the second pass is like, "Oh, this is getting fired up." The third time it's, like, outrageous! Each time we pass through it, we keep pushing the potential of what it can be.

EDGE: The play is a comedy, but it's also a social commentary on a whole range of issues. How are you discussing these things in the rehearsal room when you're working out how to put a comic or dramatic spin on the topics like racism, date rape, male aggression, dysfunctional relationships, all of that?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: Something that we have talked about the most in rehearsal room is how Black women — or, Black people, but specifically Black woman because the play is centered around Black woman — process trauma or process painful events that occurred to them.

Like, right after June and Imani find out someone has been shot and say, "We talk about it because we have to talk about it," or something like that. I think that's something that we talked about in the rehearsal process — we Black women have to process and talk through these painful things. At the same time, we have to laugh through it, because if we were bogged down by every single, painful, harmful, threatening, dangerous thing that's happened to us, we would not live. And so the laughter, the comedy, is our way of being resilient in the face of all the dangers that come towards us even in one day.

EDGE: And yes, the play is a "day in the life" story about these friends. Does it feel like your own life in any way?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: [Laughing] Yeah. All these characters come through the play, and I'm like, "Oh, I know that person. Yeah, that person was at that point in my life." I do think it is as outrageous as my life, as the way that I speak, or how my family, or chosen family, act. I think that is absolutely true to my own life.

EDGE: It's noteworthy how the play kicks off with a specifically female health scare that is tied up with a moment of sexual intimacy. How are you dealing with that in this production?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: It's so shocking that you can't even believe it, and that makes you laugh. But that's something I'm thinking might be hard, because we might be thinking we're taking it the comedy route, and then someone in the audience like feel like, "Wait, that's crazy!" They might be completely shocked and frightened. But we hope you laugh at this, and laugh with Octavia, because if Octavia laughs, that keeps us from crying.

I just really think the play is really about pleasure and pain, and Black woman figuring that out. And the health scare, specifically, is actually the symbol of the fine line between pleasure and pain. And, yeah, just how they traverse both of those worlds. When I first read the play, knowing that a lot of white patrons come to the theater, at first I was like, "Oh my god, I don't know if I want to show this in front of white people." This is really vulnerable, because I think a lot of times Black women are depicted as slaves, or as maids, with really serious crying on stage all the time. This is highly different, but highly real and relevant me. And I was scared, I was like, "Whoa, I'm not going to show this."

But then as I kept reading it, I thought, "No, absolutely, all people should come to see the show," because Black women, Black queer women deserve to be fully human. Their humanity of leaning into pleasures and pains, and sometimes that being raunchy, or easily judged — I think it should all be put out there, so that we can experience our whole landscape of humanity and emotional feeling.

EDGE: The play is pretty R rated. Are you leaning into that, or are you trying to finesse it to, say, a PG-13 level?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: I think we're trying to get the essence of each moment, especially when it comes to intimacy. If a scene doesn't have to be like... if the audience can understand and say, "Oh, yeah, they're involved sexually," and we can achieve that without taking off all of our clothes, then that's what we'll do. And the same with the violence. We're just trying to get the essence of each moment and get the visceral reaction the playwright intended. But not to the point where we're trying to shock audience members in their seats so that they can't even move forward watching the play after that moment.

EDGE: Do you feel a little bit nervous about opening night, or about how audience will respond?

Shanelle Chloe Villegas: I don't feel nervous anymore about how they'll view the show. But I do kind of feel a little nervous, maybe, about reactions after the show. Like, I don't really want the show to be quoted, because it uses the N word a lot, and I don't want to be quoted after the show. That's something I'm feeling concerned about.

But in terms of the content, I really think it's a very special show. At first, there was a fear of, like, "Well, what if someone doesn't want to watch LGBTQ people kiss on stage, and how will that make me feel as someone who identifies as part of that community? But now I'm like, "Well, you'll learn something. I don't care if you want to know about it or you don't. You bought a ticket, so you're going to see it."

"BLKS" continues through Nov. 20 at SpeakEasy Stage Company. For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.