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Aziza Barnes on ‘BLKS’

The 25-year-old poet’s first play, premiering at Steppenwolf, is a vivid portrait of young black women’s lives.

Aziza Barnes
Photograph: Jerriod Avant Aziza Barnes
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“There’s that myth of the strong black woman,” Aziza Barnes says on the phone from Brooklyn. “But it’s really just a person that has never had any resources getting through an absurd day by creating resources, and then doing that every day.” At 25, Barnes is an acclaimed poet both in performance and on the page (Barnes’s second collection, i be, but i ain’t, was published in 2016); in December, the NYU grad also becomes a produced playwright with Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s premiere of BLKS, a comedy about a day in the life of young black roommates in Brooklyn.

“One of them, Octavia, wakes up with a cancer scare—an absurd cancer scare. And in a very dramatic fashion, she and her friends decide this is like the end of days, so we’re going to go get really day-drunk and cross-faded and go out and have the last night of our lives, essentially,” Barnes says of the play, which began as their senior project at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. (Barnes uses they or Z, short for Aziza, rather than singular pronouns.)

Though BLKS is set in Brooklyn, it can be traced back to Barnes’s study-abroad experience in Ghana. “That was actually the first time I really realized what a specific and unique experience black women or black genderqueer people have—black American, I mean,” they say. “In Ghana, they’re like, ‘You’re not black, you’re from America! This is not your home.’ I went there thinking this is gonna be the one place that I feel welcomed. And in America, it’s also like this isn’t your home, even though it’s your home, because you’re descended from slaves, and people around black people never really let that go.”

The play takes its comic cues from the way placelessness plays out as day-to-day absurdity. “It’s all these horrifying misadventures or aims to self-medicate. One of the characters is grieving the loss of her father, another is really scared about this surgery, the other just got cheated on by her boyfriend,” Barnes says. “I love watching these three women make each other laugh and console each other and try and forget their problems, in a way that is, like, so uniquely early twenties, so uniquely black and so uniquely not male. That’s very important to me.”

BLKS runs Dec 7–Jan 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company (steppenwolf.org). $20–$89.

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