Poet-playwright Aziza Barnes was inspired to write the play BLKS as a reaction to two very different experiences. The unflinching comedy focusing on young and queer African-Americans receives a world-premiere production this week at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Barnes spent a semester studying in Ghana while attending New York University. Instead receiving a welcoming embrace in Africa, Barnes was prodded to reconsider life back in America.
"It is a very specific thing to be a queer, black American person, and a lot of those things in that description are not exactly welcome or understood in Ghana," Barnes said. "In that space, I really felt that, 'Oh, shit. My voice and the things that I have to say and the things my friends have to say are so nuanced and specific.' I would take for granted the small havens that we build by living in New York and being queer and black and artists."
Barnes also wrote BLKS as a response to the first season of Lena Dunham's Girls. One of the major criticisms of the HBO series was its paucity of racially diverse characters.
"[Dunham's] lens on Brooklyn and the world is just so 'white lady,'" Barnes said. "Weirdly, it gave me this permission to talk about the shit that I feel and I knownot to expect anything from her, but to expect everything from myself. It's interesting the things that you can pull from."
BLKS focuses on a day in the life of four African-American women in their 20s living in New York City. The character of Olivia ( Nora Carroll ) receives some very bad news early on, but her response is quell her troubles by spending her time hanging out and partying with her friends like June ( Leea Ayers ), Imani ( Celeste Cooper ) and Ry ( Danielle Davis ).
"We have such a misconception of what a queer black day is or can be," Barnes said. "It is absurd and loud, full of jokes and you're laughing to keep from all of the other feelings you're having at your disposal. And that the world continues to infringe upon your day."
In BLKS, Barnes structured the work to just focus on one day in the lives of the play's characters, which includes Steppenwolf Ensemble member Namir Smallwood playing an assortment of male roles and actress Kelly O'Sullivan as "That Bitch on the Couch."
"If you're really present and alive and in the moment, in the course of a day you could really end up completely different," Barnes said. "Not a different character, but in the way you see the world if you're actually paying attention."
Barnes says it's a dream come true to have a world premiere play at Steppenwolf. Barnes is also glad that director Nataki Garrett, co-artistic director of BLANK THE DOG PRODUCTIONS, is staging BLKS in her Steppenwolf debut, too.
Yet BLKS isn't the only thing Barnes is involved with for Steppenwolf. Barnes is curating a BLKS Salon Series of four shows as part of Steppenwolf's relatively new LookOut programming.
"[BLKS] is a play about and in many ways for young queer people of color, and so it felt like a great opportunity to engage some of the artistic community in Chicago and their audiences," said Lookout producer Greta Honold.
"I worked with Aziza to come up with four evenings of work that really spans genre and I think they're going to be a dynamic compliment to the story Aziza is telling with BLKS," said Honold, emphasizing that it was Barnes who asked to use the 80-seat 1700 Theatre as an ancillary and more intimate venue for the Salon Series.
"I feel really moved every day and I think it's really exciting and validating. I always thought that the way that I spoke and my friends spoke was worth something and worth a space like Steppenwolf," Barnes said. "To feel this embrace and level of trust with the work and the stories being toldI sappy cry about it a lot. It's an abundance of joy. I feel very humbled and honored and giddy."
The world premiere of Aziza Barnes' BLKS plays from Thursday, Dec. 7, through Sunday, Jan. 28, in the Upstairs Theatre of Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Previews run through Sunday, Dec. 19, with an official press opening Wed., Dec. 20. Tickets are $20-$89.
Each event in the BLKS Salon series plays in Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre at 1700 N. Halsted St.
An Intentional Turn Up with Slo 'Mo Party features resident performer Darling Shear, DJ Audio Jack and more at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14. B.A.P.S. Comedy presents an evening of sketches and improvisation in the show Curlz, 'Fros & Braids at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16.
The Poetry Gods featuring Eve L. Ewing, Jon Sands and Jose Olivarez is at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17. A BLKS Poetry Salon curated by Barnes is 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19.
Each BLKS Salon Series event is $5, or $15 for all four. For more information on all performances, call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org .