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‘This is who we are’: A conversation with the three stars of ‘BLKS’

From left: Kelsey Fonise, Thomika Marie Bridwell, and Shanelle Chloe Villegas, the three stars of SpeakEasy Stage Company's "BLKS,” shown at the Calderwood Pavilion, where the play is being staged.
From left: Kelsey Fonise, Thomika Marie Bridwell, and Shanelle Chloe Villegas, the three stars of SpeakEasy Stage Company's "BLKS,” shown at the Calderwood Pavilion, where the play is being staged.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“BLKS” by Aziza Barnes centers on the lives of June, Octavia, and Imani, three Black women in their 20s trying to find their way in the world. The story starts when Octavia learns she has a health problem. To cope, she and her friends plan a wild night out. Their rendezvous includes Octavia’s scout for a one-night stand, a strange brand of bandit, and lessons on love and vulnerability amid life’s other joys and complications: intimacy, yearning to belong, police brutality, infidelity, grief, and relationship-defining conversations.

The show, at SpeakEasy Stage Company through Nov. 20, is funny, but not because of the circumstances per se. This trio with big personalities laugh through their pain while leaning on each other for strength. In the play, Octavia is grappling with her newish relationship with Ry, Imani is dealing with the grief of losing her father by watching and planning to perform Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” and June, a well-paid Deloitte accountant, is stuck in an unfulfilling relationship because she’s plagued with expectations of perfection.

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Recently, the actors in the show, Thomika Marie Bridwell (June), Kelsey Fonise (Imani), and Shanelle Chloe Villegas (Octavia), hopped on Zoom to talk more about what it was like to portray these characters, the power of language, and theater’s ability to shift culture.

Q. What’s your experience been like performing in “BLKS” so far?

Villegas: I love it. Every night my back hurts. There’s a lot of movement, but it’s fun. Every time I perform it, I love the dancing, I love the music.

Bridwell: I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell this story because I believe it needs to be shared and that it’s a jumping-off point for conversations long overdue. Hopefully, it’s a show that may shift the culture a little bit in Black theater, Black or white here in Boston.

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From left: Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, and Thomika Marie Bridwell in "BLKS" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
From left: Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, and Thomika Marie Bridwell in "BLKS" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.Nile Scott Studios

Q. Some might be shocked by the play’s themes or language or think it’s raw or raunchy. But the language here was kind of refreshing for me. What do you think?

Fonise: Black people usually have the unfortunate circumstance of being polished for others’ consumption. So, we always come across in one kind of way: the ideal Black person, a safe zone. Aziza [Barnes] did a great job of showing that this is who we are. These are not raunchy Black people. This is not some wildly absurd out-of-the-norm version of Black people. This is just a pocket that exists in every community and every space where Black people exist. This is how we talk. This is what we talk about. This is what we look like. This is what we act like and it’s normal. We shouldn’t have to water that down or appear to be something different for the comfort of others.

Villegas: I remember first reading the script and laughing the whole way through. Then I thought: Can SpeakEasy audiences handle this? Are they actually doing this play? I resonated with these characters, and in the beginning, I was afraid to show that onstage. That vulnerability to say this is who I am, and you’re going to see me. I don’t view it as raw, raunchy, or any of those things. It’s a part of me that isn’t seen every day. I felt like, Oh, we’re going to do this on stage in front of white people? Then I thought, is there a specific audience that should see this? Should white people even see this play? Part of me felt maybe it should be hidden. Then, as I read the play more, I felt, if anything, white people should be the ones that for sure see this play.

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Bridwell: The fear around us showing ourselves or being presented in that light, which is the light of being human and fully actualized people in front of white people, is a real fear.

Black women’s bodies for far too long have been everything else but our own. We’ve been born into a world where we’ve inherited so much pain, shame, degradation. So, while there was a lot of fear surrounding stepping into these characters and showing what we don’t normally show the world, it’s 100 percent empowering because we are human beings. I hope that people can see that. It’s sad to me that people might be offended by our humanity, our womanhood. I’m proud of SpeakEasy for putting this on. I’m also proud of us. That T [Tonasia Jones] decided to direct this as a Black woman, that Jasmine [Brooks] decided to assistant direct this as a Black woman and that we are choosing to be part of this . . . The fact that we’re stepping out and that SpeakEasy is pushing these boundaries says something.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas in "BLKS."
Shanelle Chloe Villegas in "BLKS."Nile Scott Studios

Q. What are some of the themes that resonated most with you guys?

Villegas: Fear of intimacy. I don’t want to say the theme of queerness, but [rather] the fact that queerness is ever so present in the play and how that affects the fear of intimacy. Thinking about Octavia and Ry, of course, how much shame is built in or trying to identify or claim that identity as a person. Octavia might say to herself that she’s queer, but she’s not out and proud yet. That shame in that process of claiming that identity . . . makes it super difficult to show the people you love that you love them.

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Fonise: Imani’s interesting to me. It’s also a little hard for me to talk about Imani because we have a lot of similarities, how she processes pain and trauma and things like that. Her character is important because it shows that part of what it means to be Black, especially here in America and as a Black woman, is to hide. Hide how we’re feeling, hide what we’re going through and hide how badly something hurts because the world doesn’t stop for us at all. It doesn’t stop when things go wrong. It doesn’t stop when it’s on the individual level. It doesn’t stop when it’s happening to an entire community of people. Black people are expected to keep going. What I also love is that it doesn’t work, and we all have examples of that. You can try to keep going and push through, but you’re going to have consistent cracks.

Q. What about the Boston theater scene? What about opportunities for Black and brown actors on stage, creatives behind the scenes, and leadership? Do you feel Boston is changing in a good way?

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Villegas: It’s hard to say. Boston is probably in the midst of change, and change takes a long time. I think doing this show is lit for Boston theater in general. With the [different] kinds of theater happening in New York, people are used to raunchy, raw or whatever. So, the show would be taken a completely different way, the same as if it were done in the U.K. The more you’re exposed to different material, the more used to it you are. Boston may be at the beginning of trying to go there because I have not ever seen a play that has centered Black women and Black queer women period, besides the play “Stop Kiss.” So, for that to be on a stage in Boston is the beginning of change.

Fonise: I think Boston has a long way to go, personally. The easy part is saying we’re going to do this play about these Black women, Black queer women, but everything else outside of that must also change. Theater is supposed to connect. It’s supposed to bridge the gap between what’s on stage and who’s in the audience, and you’re supposed to feel that transference of energy. One of the biggest things missing is an audience that not only can we reach but can reach back out to us.

Kelsey Fonise in "BLKS."
Kelsey Fonise in "BLKS."Nile Scott Studios

Q. What’s the ethos of the big idea behind your body of work, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Villegas: As an artist, I’m involved in every part of creating: I’m a writer, an actor, I design lights, I do all the things. I’m a theater rat, addicted to the craft. I want to create things the world has never seen before. I know the quote that says every story has been told, but not in my way. . . . My lifelong goal is to open a school that uses theater to teach every subject, arts integration into every subject. I have seen theater change the world domestically and universally. I teach theater to students and saw today how it works. The kids came in like, “I’m a zombie and I hate life.” When they left, they were like: “Yay, theater is mad fun!”

As an artist, my dream, my love, everything about me is about freedom. That’s what my spirit wants. I want to create things that express that and encourage that in others. It’s kind of weird, me being a gay, Black woman — many oppressed identities — that I am here today, free as a bird. Free spirit. Can’t be locked, you know? There’s a bunch of oppression outside of me, but the oppression is not within me. I want to encourage that in Black women. Freedom through art, that’s me.

Fonise: I started an organization at the top of the year called the Haitian American Theater Alliance because I am a Haitian American. Both my parents were born in Haiti, and my community does not focus on the arts at all. It suppresses a lot of creativity within a lot of young people because we’re told to pursue the same three professions. That bothers me. Many of my friends are amazing Haitian creatives, writers, actors, directors. They’re fire. I love them. I want everyone else to love us too. My organization came from a place of healthy jealousy because, in the African community, they are prevalent on stage and in film. You don’t get to see who we are on stage. You don’t get to see how our culture is represented authentically in TV and film.

For myself, I want to do everything. When you’re passionate about something, it makes you want to keep exploring. It’s this supernova effect of how can I consume myself entirely with art? How can I expand myself into every nook and cranny of this world? Because I love it that much.

Thomika Marie Bridwell and Sharmarke Yusuf in "BLKS."
Thomika Marie Bridwell and Sharmarke Yusuf in "BLKS."Nile Scott Studios

Bridwell: My artistry is my life. I don’t believe that as an artist, you choose this. I believe it chooses you. This is my ministry, and it can transform through disarming. We go to the theater, go to movies, watch TV to be entertained, and because of that, our defenses are not up. Because our defenses are not up, we can hear and experience differently than we would if we heard somebody preach or an activist speak. That’s our responsibility as artists to know that’s what we’re doing. We provide people with a mirror to see themselves and our condition and hopefully be moved by that. Whether it’s moved to laughter, moved to tears, that is super important to me.

I hope that my artistry will be the impetus to start conversations and the work of progress, of transformation, particularly for Black people, for Black women. Very few aspects of our stories are told. As Aziza wrote and Octavia said, we are so much more than the mammy, superhero, slave story that you see. I hope I’ll be able to give voice to that, give voice to our inner struggles.

“BLKS” runs through Nov. 20 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Details at www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/10/blks