To Laugh Without Restraint: “BLKS”

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Written by Aziza Barnes
Directed by Tonasia Jones
Fight & Intimacy choreography by Ted Hewlett
Dramaturgy by Raul Avila Munoz

Oct. 29 – Nov. 20, 2021
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA 
SpeakEasy on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON — Last Thursday night, I had the privilege to see BLKS with an audience that contained a larger population of non-white people than most. It was revelatory to watch a cast perform for an audience they could identify with. The cast relaxed into their excellent performances. They took risks. We appreciated them. It was great until it wasn’t. 

When a cast relaxes, the audience does too. This is wonderful if the art is for you. It’s not when the art is for someone else. 

A white woman in a red coat sitting in the front row with the most cutting, shrill laugh I have ever heard relaxed deeply into the comedy of the show. Her squeaky soprano convulsions upstaged the actors in both comedic moments and tender.

The cast of BLKS managed the shrieker’s outbursts with professional stoicism. They could hear her, but they plowed on without breaking the fourth wall. Kelsey Fonise performed a standup routine while the hyena was building up steam. Sandra Seoane-Seri was delivering a truthful monologue about romantic loyalty while we were uncontrollably giggling as the hyena yowled like a cat in heat. Thomika Marie Bridwell and Shanelle Chloe Villegas kept their focus through it all. If that doesn’t shout professional excellence to the rafters, I don’t know what does.   

It would not have been inappropriate for the cast or ushers to tell this possibly drunk woman to leave. Her date didn’t even shush her. The cast held their peace. There should be awards for putting up with such nonsense. 

Kelsey Fonise, Shanelle Chloe Villegas and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of BLKS. Photo by Nile Scott Studios. They are gorgeous. 

My date assumed this screamer was a plant. She was not. This grown-ass woman threatened the performance for everyone with her very existence. It took us out of the story.  

My fellow white folks, BLKS is not for us but we can participate as long as we understand that our presence is not in focus. We are welcome in the theatre; we are invited to share these stories; we are meant to enjoy ourselves. 

We are not supposed to colonize the space with our presence and uncontrolled reactions. I say this as a woman with a large laugh who is used to being told to tone it down: be respectful or stay home. Not everything is about us and that’s okay. It’s good, even.

BLKS is funny as hell. These characters are relatable, loveable and make questionable choices. We all know someone like that. So please enjoy yourself! But don’t do so at the expense of others.  

I was not my first choice to cover BLKS at SpeakEasy Stage. I wasn’t my second or third choice, either. I was dead last after all of the other Geek staff writers. 

Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of BLKS. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

The cast and crew of BLKS deserve critiques from writers that look and live like them. There is a dearth of Boston-area critics and reviewers of color. It’s a systemic problem like so many others. I can’t solve systemic racism in our theatre community. What I can do is explain to white readers how I showed up and shut up to speak up. 

There are lots of other writers who look and sound like me writing responses to this show. Those reviews read like they took their cues directly from Tonasia Jones’ program note. Jones sounds genuine. The reviewers sound the same. 

It’s not difficult to talk about race without being racist. It takes practice; you will make mistakes, but it can be done. The first step is to be culturally curious without taking up too much space while doing so.  

Twyla has neither cones nor the rods of a good writer. She’s still a good girl.

I joked to my wife that our cat Twyla would offer better representation because Twyla literally cannot see (most) color. She hasn’t the photoreceptor cones. Nor does she have the mental capacity to understand abstract concepts such as racism. She declined the assignment on the basis that she can neither read nor write. So here I am.

You will enjoy BLKS if you enjoy good storytelling. It’s chaotic, funny, and truthful. The fight and intimacy choreography are believable but don’t put anyone in harm’s way. The costuming design by Cassandra Queen makes the cast look a-frickin’-mazing. BLKS’ humor resembles A Black Lady Sketch Show and just a touch of Living Single.

Don’t let your white fragility get in the way of a good time. 

I learned several new things at BLKS. Here is a short glossary of useful terms. 
Angela Bassett – The actress and the movement. Bassett is an actress known for her stirring portrayals of women in movies such as What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), Waiting to Exhale (1995), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Black Panther (2018), and A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019). 

Hotep: UrbanDictionary.com says that a “Hotep: 1. A conservative, religious, conspiracy loving, “family values” enthusiast who is also way to much into black pride, to the point of being a black supremacist. basically the black answer to MAGA hats. Louis Farrakhan is the ultimate example for this type of black man. 2. an ancient Egyptian greeting meaning peace, similar to Salam in Arabic and Shalom in Hebrew.

Mammy – UrbanDictionary.com says that (1.) Mammy is a term used to describe an unfit, lazy, uncaring, wannabe grown, irresponsible or unruly mother. 2. a black woman, depicted as rotund, homely and matronly. The mammy is an archetype, portraying a domestic servant of African descent who is generally good-natured, often overweight, and loud. The stereotypical mammy is portrayed as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – She is the Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.

Fonzworth Bentley – TMZ.com says that Atlanta artist Fonzworth Bentley gained fame in the early 2000s as (nee P) Diddy’s assistant and stylish sidekick on reality shows like MTV’s “Making The Band 2” and as the host of “From G’s To Gents.”

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