In the last two weeks I have seen three productions–the most challenging of which I saw less than 24 hours ago and has left me reeling. BLKS which is making its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage has tested the limits of my personal boundaries around what I find funny, and what is just too crudely intimate for me to laugh at or make light of. That said, I was struck by the vivacity of the performances, the crazy, visceral, sexual and emotional lives of these characters, as well as the tonal range covered in the script, orchestrated by director Tonasia Jones, and some pretty nimble staging. This was at times wildly funny, occasionally touching, and so raw as to be almost unwatchable for me–but I couldn’t look away either.


Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, Thomika Marie Bridwell/ Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Here are the bald outlines of BLKS– minus the rest of the letters– because according to Aziza Barnes the playwright quoting poet Avery R. Young’s coinage–“it’s about people not about a color.” Everyone in the play is Black, with the exception of one marginalized white female character (Meghan Hornblower) known only as “That Bitch on the Couch” whose fragility is on full display. The script centers us on the point of view and experience of four young Black women in their early 20’s just starting out, seeking fun,  identity and fulfillment in a world that has not been designed for them. The action takes place over the course of one riotous 24-hour period in which there are breakups and random hookups, drinking and drugs, love and loss, identity and relationships, within the larger context of social and historical  injustice. It’s an outrageous slice of life very bluntly told.

The details of plot, the language, and the action often made me blanch–pun intended. It begins almost immediately with Octavia (Shanelle Chloe Villegas) and her filmmaker “partner”? “F..k-buddy”? Girlfriend”? of 3 months, Ry (Sandra Seoane-Seri) having orgasmic oral sex. Shortly thereafter Tavia starts screaming from the bathroom that she has discovered a mole on her clitoris and begs Ry to examine it. (Ask me how happy I am not to have to explain this on TV.)  Ry is repulsed, refuses, and Octavia in a fit, throws her out. Tavia then spends the rest of the night out on the town with her two roommates, June (Thomika Marie Bridwell) and Imani (Kelsey Fonise) trying to get as much use out of her sexual parts as possible before next-day surgery to remove the offending cancerous mole. Not since “The Vagina Monologues” have I seen a play with such gynecological focus.

The night gets wilder as June, a financial analyst who’s equally adept at code-switching, continues to spiral downward from yet another betrayal by her cheating boyfriend and dons a white prom dress for reasons that eventually prove quite touching. Similarly, Imani performs snatches of Eddie Murphy’s standup from 1987’s “Eddie Murphy:Raw” as a salve for her wounded heart. And Tavia, who has a random encounter with a serial panty ripper, is still trying to heal her anxiety around love and fear by trying to talk various folks into either giving her head or just taking a look down there and reporting back.  There are several truly hilarious scenes involving an odd dork of a dude named Justin (Sharmarke Yusuf) who follows June home which made me laugh out loud. The play erupts in farcical mayhem, climaxing in the aforementioned next-day surgery, and Octavia screaming in pain, “I feel it all!” And how.  You can see BLKS through November 20 at SpeakEasy Stage.

Phoenix Best, Reggie D. White, Whitney White, Kira Sarai Helper/Photo:Lauren Miller

Meanwhile, the world premiere MACBETH IN STRIDE has just opened at the American Repertory Theater created and performed by Obie Award-winner Whitney White who takes on 400 years of the misogynist canon, written by white men, for white men and in Shakespeare’s day performed by white men. As a Black woman, Whitney takes center stage as every “Woman” and questions the suffocating historical narratives that have framed anyone “othered”… “before you were you.” Here she zeros in on Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in a musical mashup wherein the three witches are now sassy back up singers in that “You go girl” kind of way. One of them– Phoenix Best–outsings White who nonetheless gives it her all.

White’s Lady M laments her lack of agency save through her husband the ambivalent Thane. Yet the Lady’s own death wasn’t deemed important enough for Shakespeare to have it happen onstage! It’s an excellent point, and promising, but the show never goes past the premise– calling out the injustice of it all; it never dares to imagine, for example, what Lady Macbeth’s death onstage might have looked and felt like. This is the theater of complaint, bemoaning by now obvious truths presented as revelation. The music performed by a 4-piece onstage band is lumpy Broadway gospel-pop-rock, with aimless hooks and predictable lyrics. White is much more powerful when she speaks than when she sings. This is the first of White’s five-part series commissioned by the A.R.T. to explore Shakespeare’s heroines. I’m curious to see if White takes a deeper look into the Bard’s blindspots; may she uncover more than what we already know is there.

Lyndsay Allen Cox and Michael Underhill/ Photo: Nile Hawver


Finally, there’s The Huntington’s WITCH, a reworking of a 1621 Jacobean play called “The Witch of Edmonton” about Elizabeth Sawyer (Lyndsay Allen Cox) an outcast– who stands for all outcasts– and the handsome devil in their midst, here called “Scratch”(Michael Underhill). This subversive dark comedy has been reworked by Jen Silverman and ultimately has the devil questioning his own bargains. The action is set in the 17th century, but the dialogue is contemporary, shedding light on the increasingly transactional nature of modern life which has plunged us into existential chaos. Despite a luscious set and excellent performances, the cast is let down by a dramatically flat script and weak direction, especially in the play’s final miscalculated moments where love and sacrifice conjure a glimmer of hope in the darkness. You can see WITCH through November 14 at The Huntington.