PAWTUCKET, R.I. – The press release issued by Burbage Theatre Co. to trumpet its Rhode Island premiere of Aziza Barnes’s “BLKS” offered some stellar quotes from reviews of the play’s 2019 Off-Broadway production:
“A raucous comedy of misbehavior and a quiet tragedy of mistreatment… the pure joy of seeing the best of people at their worst… the uncomfortable proximity of terror and pleasure, the mark of mortality in the midst of intimacy, percolates beneath the surface at all times.” — NY Times
“… A disarming, vivacious comedy… Barnes’s irreverent and exuberant play, saturated in race and sexuality, is part romantic sitcom, part existential reflection…. Before you know it, a deep, soulful riff is unwinding.” — Washington Post
Sounds great. But this is not the same show on stage at the Burbage, though it is clearly the same play.
“BLKS” serves up a day in the life of Tavia (Daria Lyric-Montaquila), Imani (Autumn Jefferson), and June (Abraphine Ngafaih), best friends living in New York City in 2015. Doing so reveals the assorted trials and tribulations they encounter – and plow through with bravery, bravado, and a bit of day drinking and pot smoking – just for being young, female, black, and in the case of two of the three, lesbian. They struggle as they navigate friendship, love, and health scares, and they find themselves face-to-face with systemic injustice, casual indifference, and toxic masculinity.
The three women are living, says Imani halfway through this one-act, 90-minute play, but they are invisible and do not belong. As such, they are constantly explaining themselves to others, including the misogynistic men and occasional Eagle Scout they meet on the street (all played by Jordan Daniel Smith), a well-intentioned but culturally ignorant white woman they meet at a bar (Sarah Gruber) who is affectionately titled “That Bitch On The Couch” in the playbill, and their lovers, particularly Tavia’s significant other, Ry (Ayrin Ramirez Peguero). It’s as if #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t apply to queer women of color.
Barnes, a gender non-conforming poet and playwright, provides these characters with truths via a steady stream of witty, often sexually explicit dialogue and the occasional reference to “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” And the friends come well-defined in terms of their respective forms of fragility and vulnerability. Tavia, a filmmaker whose work-in-progress is without form or a future, is blunt and open regarding her sexual needs but insecure when it comes to her relationship with Ry. Imani, a fledgling stand-up comic, uses humor to deflect deeper emotions grounded in the passing of her father. And June, who is bright enough to be a six-figure accounting consultant, can’t quite get her head around leaving a habitually cheating boyfriend.
As well defined as these characters are, the actors playing them are challenged by a complex script with frequent and unforeseen adjustments in temperament and tension. It also contains abrupt transitions from one crisis to another and quickly shifts from sitcomish comedy to moments of weighty drama. This play starts big, with Tavia’s bold, explosive orgasm at curtain’s rise, but it’s the smaller, quieter moments that follow that make this work so intriguing
Unfortunately, these adjustments, transitions, and down-shifts are never fully realized here. Instead, this Burgage production approaches the work with volume on high, non-stop tenacity, and an insensitivity to nuance and the necessary intricacies of comic timing. Characters shout at each other rather than converse with one another. The loud, unabashed emotional release of Tavia’s show-opening climax seems to have set the tone for this staging.
And so overacting and little restraint rule this production, with director Catia rarely managing to find the right emotional buttons to push or just where in the play to push them. Only Jefferson as Imani finds those pockets of reflection and quietude, which show us just how good this play can be – as reflected in the above quotes – and what we are sorely missing from the other performers. Although the supporting characters are little more than a means to an end in the telling of Tavia, Imani, and June’s story, they are very well played and a pleasure to watch.
While the lead performances are over-the-top, just the opposite can be said about this production’s low-budget, no frills design elements. There’s little attention to detail or realism in Trevor Elliot’s scenic work, which rotates to become the mediocre center piece for every scene. The lighting design tends to mask what’s missing, so there’s that. Khai Halevi’s club mix composition serves as a solid soundscape for this show and Jaimy Escobedo’s costume design, which is nicely set in the period of the play, works well.
As this production progresses through its three-week run, it will be interesting to see if those involved take a deep breath, better find the poetry and rhythm in the words, and embrace the reality that drives the comedy.
Play by Aziza Barnes. Directed by Catia. At the Burbage Theatre Co., 59 Blackstone Ave., Pawtucket. Through Dec. 3. Tickets are $30, including fees. 401-484-0355, burbagetheatre.org.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.