Can black women say nigga? Of course, but girl why?

This is a personal essay about BLKS by Aziza Barnes (Playwright) and Nataki Garrett (Director).

My chat with the friendly, black woman next to me ends. I face the empty stage for about 5 more minutes of intermission. My mind is full. Nigga. Nigga. Nigga. This is common speak in BLKS and Issa Rae’s Insecure. I never thought a word Maya Angelou once called poison would become so normalized for black women writers, become our everyday vernacular like Girl. But I seriously suspect it’s not normal at all. This is fiction not a sign of the times. Whereas girl is not just normal and true, it’s been elevated to magic.

Getting a ticket

I tried all week to get tickets during the last week of the play’s run. No dice. I kept my eye on the website, but my left brain was already giving me an out: maybe it’s not meant to be. That’s a meaningful defense considering that I see way less plays since moving to Chicago. Living in Newark and frequently NYC meant play-going, from Broadway and Off-Broadway to your friend’s friend daughter’s small role in Rent held at a neighborhood Rec Center. 

I found out about the play while volunteering at the Southside Community Arts Center for MLK Jr. holiday weekend. On my way out, I stopped at the nook where they keep community-interest flyers and cards. I live on the northside of Chicago, so being at the center is like a black artists meetup and black professional networking event in one. 

It’s Friday and I’m still ticketless. A friend at work starts up a conversation about my weekend. 

What are your plans this weekend, Zahra?

Well, I was trying to see this play. But I can’t get tickets.

What play?

It’s called Blacks. We’re surrounded by whites, so I’m self-conscious about saying the name.

Oh my god, it’s so funny! We saw it Tuesday. A white woman says. 

Yeah, I wanted to go Tuesday for the discount.

Just call the box office. That’s what we did. 

Thanks. I knew to call the box office, but kept forgetting at work and by the time I got off work it was closed. A sign? I set reminders and calendar events for everything, but this I can’t remember?

It’s Saturday and I’m sleeping in. I workout and make a healthy breakfast as part of #2018goals. I’m in my post-workout clothes when an inner voice says call the box office.

Yes, I want tickets, but the website has shown sold out all week.

You can come on over for standby tickets.

How likely am I to get them?

You have a pretty good chance if you get you within 20 minutes.

Ok. Do you have valet for the matinee?

Yeah, the valet guys are out there.

Thanks!

It’s 2:08 and I’m in play clothes, as in children’s outside clothes not play-going clothes. Even for a matinee, I look too-relaxed to be indoors with strangers. I don’t care. I know valet parking means I’ll make it on time.

Hi, I called about a standby ticket.

Actually, I think we can get you a seat. Are you a student?

Umm, sure.

Do you have a student ID?

No. I used to work for Chicago Public Schools, but I chose my health instead.

The box-office guys laugh.

Ok, so I can get you a really good seat. I smile and pay. My seat was great, dead center and just 5 rows from the front.

Play Synopsis

I don’t read the synopsis in the playbook before a play. It throws off by vibe. So before the show, all I know is what’s revealed in the promotional message: “Three friends. One f**ked up night. A whole lot of growing pains.” The image has three brown girls with different hairstyles and facial expressions ranging from frustrated to fun-loving on a pink-colored background featuring the NYC skyline. 

This is the only information I have as the lights lower at 3:07. People trickled, mostly black women between 3 and 3:07. “Alright now, we’re out here supporting,” one of the two black gay boys behind me says in a tone and cadence that’s black and feminine and deep and proud.

Play review: Act One

The play is set in the year 2015:

Act one begins with Octavia (Nora Carroll) making out with her partner/lover Ry (Danielle Davis). Their morning makeout session is interrupted by Octavia’s discovery of a black dot on her clitoris. She tells Ry, but Ry reacts as an unfeeling lover instead of a caring partner to Octavia’s displeasure. Through all the commotion, which is hilariously written and well-performed, Octavia forces Ry out the apartment and her roommate Imani (Celeste M. Cooper) arrives to Octavia freaking out. Imani talks her friend through reasons and solutions for the black dot scare in a thick New York accent. Of all the friends, her tone and articulation is distinctly black New York. Imani and Ry hold the play’s NYC roots firmly in the soil if only through their spoken words. To hear them speak calls upon the deep and charismatic voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy. One of the main on-stage details of Imani’s life is that she’s memorized Eddie Murphy’s Raw to recreate the performance in memory of her father.

The play builds a fun and frantic momentum, and June (Leea Ayers) enters the play with a more familiar scare than a spotted clitoris. She comes to Octavia and Imani’s apartment to tell them that her man has been cheating, which is evidenced by the remains of two 2-piece Popeyes chicken meals. June is furious, expressing it in a bourgeoisie-ghetto way — the way a black woman who works for Deloitte would — beginning and ending sentences with Nigga stringed together with precise adjectives and thorough anecdotes. The women laugh at the ridiculousness of their day (lives) and eventually go to a nightclub.

On the way to the club, the trio witness a Drunk White Woman (Kelly O’Sullivan) being assaulted by a Dominican Dude (Namir Smallwood). June confronts the man whose ethnicity is not known but guessed, and he slaps her. The double-assault leads the characters into a too-real conversation about race. Imani and Octavia can’t believe June risked her safety to help the white woman, thinking the woman would be thankful. In a moment of playwright politicism (dialogue written from the playwright’s political views spoken by a character) and fourth-wall breaking, the characters look out into the audience and tell us that white people must really think we’re animals. There are some instances when playwright politicism goes wrong in the play, but this isn’t one of them. This time, the “we” is black women and I can sense the audience acknowledge black women’s pain exclusive of black people awkwardly known as black men. I know this because there’s dead silence instead of laughter or body shuffles in seats, and the white man in front of me looks at his wife — she doesn’t look back — her eyes stay on the stage. 

The Nigga Intermission

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During intermission, I stay seated. I take some notes on dialogue and audience reactions that surprised me — the white girl one row behind me laughed super loud at the white girl in the dance club’s whitebread interaction with Imani — a guy who might be white let out a deep, low Mhmm when Rye explains to Octavia that she’s down for whatever Octavia needs from her, but she can’t be what Octavia doesn’t allow her to be.

Then there was the thing I needed less than anything if I was going to stay in the present and feel my own reactions — a strong opinion from social media. I overhear one of the guys sitting behind me say so and so “commented on my check-in. She said she found it underwhelming.” I’m annoyed and anxious. I didn’t agree with the unknown woman, but she had a point.

I jot down the secondhand social media commentary in my notes, and turn to the young woman next to me.

Does it feel to you like they’re using the N-word way too much?

Yea. It does for sure.

I mean come on. No one talks like that.

Yea. I mean I say bitch more than nigga. And I only say nigga when I’m talking to my boys.

Right. I say ‘bitch please’ for effect. But mostly I use her name, my friends’ names. Do you watch ‘Insecure’?

Yea. Issa and Molly say nigga a lot! That’s one of the first things I noticed.

Yea. I mean for me like I remember when Master P was making movies. We’ve come a long way. And I’m happy that we’re telling our stories. But I look forward to what these stories look like in two years. 

Yea. That’s something to look forward to.

My chat with the friendly, black woman next to me ends. I face the empty stage for about 5 more minutes of intermission. My mind is full. Nigga. Nigga. Nigga. This is common speak in BLKS and Issa Rae’s Insecure. I never thought a word Maya Angelou once called poison would become so normalized for black women writers, become our everyday vernacular like Girl. But I seriously suspect it’s not normal at all. This is fiction not a sign of the times. Whereas girl is not just normal and true, it’s been elevated to magic.

Play review: Act Two

Act two begins with the trio dancing off the rapey brown guy and privileged-even-in-distress white girl vibes at a nightclub. In a well-choreographed sequence, each character appears in a scene with another character at the club:

Octavia and Ry: The friends see Ry booed up with a white girl in a corner of the club, and Octavia immediately confronts Ry. Ry, my favorite character and actress in the play because of her comedic timing and movement — think Queen Latifah in Set it Off — calls Octavia “Baby.” A term of endearment which is to black romance what soul food is to black families. This term and the mood it brings is mostly absent from the play. Ry begins her lines with Baby and tells Octavia that she can be her partner or lover, but not both whenever it’s convenient — sex and emotional support — or inconvenient — holidays with Octavia’s parents who are clueless about her sexual orientation.

Imani and the Drunk White Woman: Imani and the white woman flirtatiously discuss reparations and white fragility. Imani jokingly tells the white woman to pay for her service of teaching her about black people. In another sequence, the white girl tells Imani she feels like Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) because everything she says to Imani is wrong like calling Octavia “angry” and rubbing Imani’s hair as they kissed. In a surprising (white people paying reparations to black people) and weirdly present day (a mention of pay apps, but like the 5th best one), the white woman actually transfers money into Imani’s Venmo account.

June and Justin: June dances and chats with a sweet, boyish man — think Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — Justin (Namir Smallwood). She tells him about her shitty day-night and he comforts her with words and silence — he listens. In a hilarious moment that displays his un-coolness, he offers to beat up her boyfriend and the rapey guy in that very moment, an obvious heart-eyes reaction to liking June.

Back at the apartment after the club, Justin climbs up June’s window. He eventually gives oral sex to Octavia. And he’s kicked out the next morning when Ry arrives.

Octavia and June fight about Justin. The actresses show their range in a seriously funny “slow mo” fight scene — think Jim Carrey’s unstable football player scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

By the end of the play, the trio embrace and the friendship is effectively reset. All told, each woman has a cathartic moment: Octavia about her body, Imani about her dad, and June about her relationship.

I’m leaving the theatre and it’s colder now that the sun has gone down. The man seated behind me who recited the facebook spoiler comment walks by.

Have a good nighttt.

You toooo.

Here comes the valet. Glad I don’t have to walk in the cold in my slippers.

 

 

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