‘BLKS’ to close UI Theatre spring mainstage season

The University of Iowa Theatre Department’s final show in their mainstage season will be the play ‘BLKS.’ Written by American poet Aziza Barnes and directed by guest director Lisa Strum, the story follows three friends over the course of 24 hours in New York City.


Jerod Ringwald

Octavia, performed by Olivia Foster, drinks with Imani, performed by DeZhané Antionette, during a dress rehearsal for “BLKS” at the University of Iowa’s theatre building on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The performance demonstrated what it’s like to be a black queer woman.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Arts Reporter

The University of Iowa Theatre Department’s mainstage season for 2021-22 was full of diverse stories. From whimsical, musical tales based on classical mythology to historical pieces that reveal lesser-known truths about the world, the stage has seen a variety of narratives throughout the year.

For a final performance, the UI Theatre Department is putting on the show BLKS. The show was written by American poet Aziza Barnes, and is directed by guest director Lisa Strum. The show will premiere on April 15 at the E.C. Mabie Theatre and will perform on April 16-17 and 20-23.

BLKS is a show about humanity. Following Octavia and her best friends June and Imani, the audience is taken on a whirlwind adventure filled with the ups and downs of friendship, passion, and relationships, all told from perspective of a queer, Black woman living in 2015 New York City.

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The play takes on a vast number of sets that must switch quickly for the story to work. To achieve those goals, the stage itself has a rotating piece that transports the audience throughout New York City as the show progresses.

The relationship between the three characters is explored with realism in mind. Dajzané Meadows-Sanderlin, a UI student pursuing an MFA in acting, plays the role of June, who Meadows-Sanderlin described as smart, strong, and loving — if not a bit cold at times.

Meadows-Sanderlin said that June’s coldness always comes from a place of love. In situations where there is conflict written in the show, she said she remembers that this is a realistic piece that observes friendship and the struggles involved.

“We fight and we’ll make up and you know, looking out for your friends even if they’re being selfish or only worried about themselves — you’re still being that friend and be there for them,” Meadows-Sanderlin said. “You love them, even if they have their little moments and their flaws.”

The student actors in this piece said that they found pieces of their own identity to implement into the show. Olivia Foster, a UI student working toward her MFA with Meadows-Sanderlin, plays the show’s protagonist, Octavia.

Octavia’s storyline initially drives the main plot. After discovering a mole on her clitoris, Octavia and her friends get together to go out following the health scare. Foster said that her character is an artist struggling with her work coming to fruition, which she has related to.

“I also am a lover of art and struggle with my identity. I’m a mixed-race woman and my character, she’s also mixed race, which was a cool thing for me to experience,” Foster said. “[I’m] just kind of like finding where my place is in the world, and how I can bring my art to life.”

DeZhané Antionette is also an MFA acting student at the UI who plays Imani. Antionette said there are certain elements of Imani’s story that they have pulled out and latched onto.

Imani’s character, much like the entire cast, is extremely complex. In the show, Imani has a loved one who recently passed away — she decides to pursue comedy as a career to stay connected with them.

While there are certain nuances in Imani’s story that Antionette cannot relate to, they said that they were able to connect with their grandfather through comedy as well. Antoinette said that they knew a lot of the comedians referenced in the play, which made forging that connection between Imani and themselves easier.

“I really pull from the experience of knowing what it feels like to bond with someone over something special,” Antionette wrote in an email to the DI. “Also, Much like my character Imani, I know what it feels like to try to navigate through a world as a Queer woman of color. I can relate to the challenges she might face. I can understand how hard it can be.”

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Each individual character is well developed, but Foster said the writing shines in the way that these three friends interact with each other.

Foster, Meadows-Sanderlin, and Antionette are all friends outside of the show, making their onstage interactions easier. Friendship is a theme that is explored thoroughly in BLKS, and Foster said the dialogue reflects that.

“That’s sort of the fun, kind of like exploring our friendship through this text as well,” Foster said. “It’s been an experience. It was a little challenging at first because there’s so much language and there’s so much back and forth — the dialogue just never stops.”

While the dialogue may be a lot, the writing makes conversations flow with authenticity. Once the actors were able to get past those original struggles, Foster said the work felt more natural.

“It’s also a very rewarding experience once you get in the groove and you’re like ‘okay, this what we’re doing,’” Foster said. “I can be silly, I can do all these things and still get my point across, and still have these serious moments. Life is filled with that.”

Foster said that keeping up with the constant back and forth can be difficult, among other struggles, but the actresses take on any difficulties that they faced with an open mind.

Foster said that there is a scene in the show that features a relatively explicit portrayal of oral sex. There is a certain fear that comes with being physically vulnerable on the stage, she said. However, through the process of practicing with a professional team, Foster said the opportunity expanded her skills in the performing world.

Antionette also faced challenges in terms of finding their character. For Antionette, this will be the first show that they are performing in since the pandemic first shut down theaters across the world in early 2020. Portraying complex individuals can be difficult, but Antionette said that the challenge is helping them push their boundaries as a performer.

“It has been quite challenging, but in the best way possible,” Antionette said. “I feel like sometimes, challenges kind of help you get to the next place. Challenges really help you find a little more depth to yourself and your abilities.”

Outside of the technical difficulties with the piece, BLKS tackles challenging themes. When it was first released in New York City, Strum said that it caused a stir in the community. Yet, that intrigue is part of what drew her to want to work with the piece at the UI.

Above all, Strum said she looked forward to having a full audience see the performance. Strum said that the cast put a great deal of work into the show and being able to see that come to fruition is exciting to see as a director.

“I jumped at the chance to be able to direct this piece. It’s so incredibly unapologetic, and how it explores female identity and sexuality, and language and culture. It’s all of those things that are so beautifully wrapped and written that you will laugh, you will cry, and you will scream,” Strum said. “I think a lot of people will see themselves on the stage.”