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Three friends navigate life's mishaps in SpeakEasy Stage's comedic 'BLKS'

Left to right: Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Left to right: Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

Laughter and joy anchor SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “BLKS,” a riotous comedy (now through Nov. 20) swirling with hip-hop, Maker’s Mark and a lot of love between three friends: Octavia, June and Imani.

For an hour and 40 minutes straight, audience members peek into the lives of these 20-somethings who embark on a wild night out after Octavia (Elliot Norton Award nominee Shanelle Chloe Villegas) discovers she might have a serious health problem.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Thomika Marie Bridwell and Kelsey Fonise in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Thomika Marie Bridwell and Kelsey Fonise in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

About four minutes into Aziza Barnes’ play, the crowd’s chuckling begins. A blissful intimate encounter  between Octavia and Ry (Sandra Seoane-Serí) turns sour when expectations aren’t met, and two Popeyes chicken meals and a glass of red wine signal to June (Thomika Marie Bridwell) that her longtime boyfriend is cheating. While his trickery has her fed up, June’s really vexed by the thought of mixing red wine and Popeyes. It’s just tacky, she muses. Meanwhile, Kelsey Fonise’s Imani dreams of doing stand-up. For her first performance, Imani plans to perform Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” which she’s been studying for ages.

Upon entering the theater, it’s evident that the show centers around lively characters. Set designer Jenna McFarland Lord’s apropos scene for the New York-set narrative features black walls painted with broad strokes of white, red, yellow and green geometric shapes and lines inspired by the work of artist Maxime Manga.

There’s a lot going on in the play, smartly directed by Tonasia Jones, one of WBUR’s The ARTery 25. There are moments where the characters’ outbursts seem outrageous and absurd, but it’s intentional. The antics echo the explosive emotions that outline coming of age — when you’re trying to figure out who you are, what’s important and how to grow and thrive. During that time in one’s life, difficulties can feel insurmountable and often the answer, at least in the meantime, is hanging out with friends while dabbling in a bit of debauchery.

Sandra Seoane-Serí and Shanelle Chloe Villegas in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Sandra Seoane-Serí and Shanelle Chloe Villegas in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

But some of the more powerful moments happen in silence or quick flashes of honesty. For instance, after June’s encounter with violence, the friends sit with her for a few minutes, supporting her with just their company. Another time, Octavia tells Ry, who she’s been seeing for a few months, to “Just be with me, we can figure the rest out later. Please.” When June wants to know why Ry loves Octavia, Ry explains that when in Octavia’s company, the world seems to have more light in it. A simple but piercing comment about how love can feel.

All the characters are extremely funny, but the gullible and odd Justin (Sharmarke Yusuf) steals a few scenes. He’s a Krazy Glue carrying, sensitive guy and a seemingly nice stalker (if there is such a thing) who tends to miss social cues. But when he finds himself in the middle of a fight between the trio of friends, he realizes he isn’t cut out to stick around.

Thomika Marie Bridwell, Shanelle Chloe Villegas and Sharmarke Yusuf in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Thomika Marie Bridwell, Shanelle Chloe Villegas and Sharmarke Yusuf in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of "BLKS." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

Dating complications, the inability to communicate, vulnerability, police brutality and more show up in the lives of these friends doing their best to be there for one another. But what’s exciting is that it’s also an unedited view of their existence, free from code-switching.

In a recent “City Line” interview, Bridwell says, “This is the language I speak to my girls in.”

Jones says in the program notes that the play, which celebrates Black femme joy, “is a love letter to our sorrows. A love letter to our double consciousness. To our loudness. To our ratchet. To our turnup…to our sisterhood.”

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “BLKS” is on view through Nov. 20 at the Calderwood Pavilion. Ticketholders must show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, and all audience members must wear masks.

Related:

Jacquinn Sinclair Performing Arts Writer
Jacquinn Sinclair is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Performer Magazine, The Philadelphia Tribune and Exhale Magazine.

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