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THEATER REVIEW BLKS
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-12-22

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Playwright: Aziza Barnes

At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: $20-$89. Runs through: Jan. 28

The language of Aziza Barnes' play is Dirty Girl-Talk—not the phallocentric banter favored by male writers who fancy themselves the predominant theme of women's intimate conversations, but observations couched in gynecological vocabulary and delivered with a take-no-prisoners candor to make Kia Corthron sound like Georgette Heyer. ( For example, "clitoris"—and its colloquial counterparts—is uttered several times in the first 10 minutes. ) Black men and white women also receive their share of vituperation, as do such hot-topic social issues as virulent street crime and shoddy law-enforcement. Don't say you weren't warned.

You can't really blame the three occupants of a spacious Brooklyn loft for their—um, unladylike demeanor, though: Corporate accountant June's boyfriend is cheating on her with a woman who drinks red wine with Popeye's fried chicken. Imani's ambition is to score a hit at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe performing Eddie Murphy's stand-up material. Octavia is not only jobless, but has just discovered a possibly malignant mole on a portion of her anatomy she fears exposing to even minor surgery—a crisis demanding consolation that her lesbian lover, Ry, is either unwilling or unable to offer.

So what do you do when your world has gone FUBAR? Why, break out the Maker's Mark, five-inch stilettos and seize the day with both hands!

Don't be fooled by the velocity at which director Nataki Garrett enumerates the trials of being young and smart in an ambiguous urban environment with your whole life ahead of you and what are you going to do about it? As we acclimate to the carnival ambience of this pivotal day, we begin to detect beneath the Boschean landscape a stereotype-shattering portrait of modern youth grown so defensive that when confronted by strangers not bent on bullying or exploitation, its response is to flee in confusion.

This anxiety is not uncommon to post-adolescents, regardless of their demographic, but rarely have its African-American permutations been as minutely documented as in the two hours of Barnes' time capsule bulletin, whose microcosmic approach mandates split-second phrasing and acrobatic agility—did I mention the slo-mo catspat?—on the part of the production's six-member cast. ( The wardrobe changes alone constitute an Olympic-grade obstacle course, but special recognition goes to Namir Smallwood and Kelly O'Sullivan for their command of multiple roles. )


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