Meanwhile, June’s roommate Imani is recovering from bombing during her standup comedy routine, which was supposed to be a segment of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw.” A white girl loved the act anyway, and she strikes up a conversation with Imani that’s hilariously spiked with stereotype and surprise.
At the same time, June’s other roommate, Octavia, is fighting with her girlfriend, Ry, after Octavia asked her to, to . . . to check on a worrisome growth in a private place.
If you’re getting the picture of a raunchy, action-packed adventure comedy, that’s good. Barnes’s irreverent and exuberant play, saturated in race and sexuality, is part romantic sitcom, part existential reflection as young black women traipse out of their messy apartment and through a night in the big city.
Add poetry, for the young writer Barnes stops the action whenever these characters finally have to reckon honestly with each other. Before you know it, a deep, soulful riff is unwinding, and maybe Imani and the white girl (whose rude name in the program is unprintable) are really connecting — sort of, at least. And maybe that verbose, persistent Prince Charming is coming to the rescue again, with a nobility that’s waaay out of left field.
What Woolly Mammoth has on its hands is, for starters, a play on the move. The show premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last season, and it’s slated for a New York debut this spring helmed by writer-director Robert O’Hara, whose raucous, exposed hit “Bootycandy” at Woolly and off-Broadway came from a similar universe as “BLKS.”
The audience response is so alive that when Shannon Dorsey, as would-be comic Imani, can’t remember Eddie Murphy’s jokes, two people in Friday night’s crowd called out in support, “Take your time!” That’s how engaging the characters are, and how loose and free the cast is in the vibrant staging by Nataki Garrett, who directed the Chicago premiere.
The show has size: A huge steel I-beam supports train tracks overhead in Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s gritty set, which features see-through walls in the apartment for some laugh-inducing bedroom scenes. The personalities are scaled up, too, in performances that brightly balance Barnes’s comic excess and vulnerable grace notes. As June, Tatiana Williams enters in a rage about her cheating boyfriend — par for the course, we learn — yet seems to need what the Prince Charming character has to offer. (Justin Weaks clowns brilliantly as this Romeo, who gets caught in a seriously offbeat balcony scene with June.)
As Imani, Dorsey is cocky enough to try Eddie Murphy and hurt enough to explain why, and Dorsey’s unpredictable scenes with Madeline Joey Rose as the turned-on white girl click terrifically. Alina Collins Maldonado is suitably tough as Octavia’s girlfriend, and Cyndii Johnson motors it all with her kinetic, appealing panic as Octavia.
If you want a script shimmering with literary shape, this won’t be for you. It yaks and clatters with cable TV’s lack of inhibition — HBO’s “Girls” has been cited as possibly in the mix of influences — and the plot skids into dull corners but sparks up again when Barnes’s funky people keep exploring each other. Characteristically, it doesn’t have a solid final scene, but it has a great exit line. It’s a persistent, perceptive entertainer. The zest of these women is off the charts.
BLKS, by Aziza Barnes. Directed by Nataki Garrett. Costumes, Lex Liang; lights, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound design and original mix, T. Curtis Roberts; projections, Rasean Davonte Johnson. About two hours. Through March 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. $20-$75, subject to change. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.