Chicago Theatre Review
You’ve Got a Friend
BLKS – Steppenwolf Theatre
Following an evening of sexual playtime with her “partner,” Ry, Octavia suddenly, unexpectedly discovers she has a mole on her vagina. This may be one of most frank and outrageous opening scenes of a play that this reviewer can recall ever seeing. But it certainly sets the tone for the rest of this eye-opening, two-act comedy. Bold, sassy and extremely adult, in both subject matter and language, poet and playwright Aziza Barnes’ contemporary, autobiographic play is enjoying its first-rate world premiere, right here in Chicago.
Octavia isn’t sure how this strange, unexpected medical condition will affect her sex life, and since she can’t foretell her future, she invites her two best friends, her roommates Imani and June, to share what might be her last night on the town. They head out from their Brooklyn apartment to their favorite Manhattan club. On the way the three buddies run into a drunken white girl being ravaged in the street by a domineering Dominican dude. In attempting to help the girl, Octavia chases the young victim down the alley, while June confronts the guy and suffers a facial injury and Imani meets with a host of indignities doled out by the 9-1-1 dispatcher.
When the trio finally reach the bar, amid cocktails and conversation Octavia finds her girlfriend Ry in the company of an attractive, young white woman, known as the Bitch on the Couch. While Octavia and Ry engage in verbal combat, the vivacious blond finds that she’s attracted to the brash and cheeky Imani, a talented woman who’s trying to make a name for herself as a standup comic. June, whose longtime relationship with Sosa abruptly ended earlier that evening, is asked to dance by a very nice club boy named Justin. It’s a one-evening encounter that leads to much more for everyone, as the night wears on.
Set in Sibyl Wickersheimer’s versatile, multipurpose scenic design, dominated by sectional sofas and enveloping draperies, Director Nataki Garrett always keeps her cast highly visible and in an eternal state of motion. Nothing is hidden from the audience’s probing eye, including a fully exposed bathroom, where Octavia makes her shocking medical revelation while on the throne. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design allows the action to spill downstage and out into the audience, even incorporating the two aisles. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s manic projections add motion, verve and local color to the New York setting, allowing the audience a look at one the many televised atrocities that will understandably provoke the Black Lives Matter movement. And Trevor Bowen’s costumes enable the actors to create characters that feel familiar and realistic, especially June, in her beautiful white cotillion gown.
Each of the stunning actors are terrific in his or her role. As June, Leea Ayers makes her accomplished Steppenwolf debut in this play. She creates a smart, sophisticated and caring young woman who, after being betrayed romantically, is willing to offer her boyfriend one more chance. She’s recently been hired in a highly-paid position within the financial world and, as such, has acquired some well-deserved self confidence. Celeste M. Cooper, so excellent in Strawdog’s recent “Barbecue,” is Imani, a strongly determined comedian-wannabe and a most sincere friend. Ms. Cooper powerfully delivers all her dialogue with the staccato rhythm of a gatling gun. She’s innately funny, without ever trying, and offers those kinds of small, natural quirks that make Imani a realistic character. Nora Carroll also makes her welcome Steppenwolf as Octavia. She brings a hyper frenetic quality to this frazzled, often confused young woman, whether regarding her personal relationships or her prospective medical condition. In many ways, Ms. Carroll carries this play representing the playwright herself. Aziza Barnes’ story is bluntly realistic, yet the dialogue she’s provided her characters has a poetic quality to it. All of the actors handle this with ease.
In supporting roles, the wonderful Kelly O’Sullivan, who’s impressed Chicago audiences on almost every stage around town, is excellent, especially as the blond bar babe who finds herself trying too hard to be politically correct in her pursuit of Imani. Danielle Davis is tough and to-the-point as Ry, Octavia’s on-again, off-again lover and film partner, who has a line of propriety that simply won’t be crossed. And Namir Smallwood all but steals the show, playing every male role. He’s tough as Sosa, hostile and confrontational as the Dominican Dude, but he wins theatergoers’ hearts as Justin, the courteous young fella June meets at the bar. When he drops by late that night to be sure she’s all right, June finds Justin an empathetic gentleman who just might be Mr. Right. What happens later, however, has to be seen to be believed.
In Nataki Garrett’s capable hands, Aziza Barnes’ autobiographical comedy is given a first-rate world premiere. Audiences will not only be in for some raucous, bawdy humor in these characters, but may empathize with these gutsy ladies in their situations. What this play all comes down to is an examination of sincere, 21st century friendship among three African-American musketeers. Through thick and thin, this trio of 20-something ladies will always be there for each other in any situation. In our violent, uncertain world, this may be the one element many of us are missing and would love to find for ourselves. Ms. Barnes’ gritty, complex cityscape offers three tough cookies who know that, come what may, life’s good when you’ve got a friend.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 7-January 28 by Steppenwolf Theatre in their Upstairs theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.