I saw BLKS, currently playing at Steppenwolf, in previews. I was eager for the reviews to come out to reinforce my opinion. Self-doubt had set in when the performance got a standing ovation from quite a few in the audience. It hadn’t wowed me.
Despite its name and playwright Aziza Barnes’s writing that it’s “a play by BLK people for BLK people,” BLKS struck me as not particularly about black life but rather about the big-city lives of four 20somethings for whom I didn’t feel much rapport. The characters seem melodramatic, aggressive, and catty. I couldn’t imagine shouting at and even hitting my friends as the characters do. What did the play have to say to 60something me?
Besides, there isn’t much of a plot. Nothing that happens, except for a health scare that I guessed would turn out to be unfounded, is all that consequential.
(Full disclosure: I am a Steppenwolf usher. I trust the folks at Steppenwolf are broad-minded enough to allow volunteers to express our honest reactions. Besides, I don’t have much influence — unlike Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose reviews of Steppenwolf productions have been criticized for racial bias.)
It wasn’t until days later that I realized why I’d thought BLKS isn’t particularly enlightening about African American experiences. Because media attention mostly focuses on problems such as poverty, crime, and joblessness, I had come to expect such issues in a drama featuring African Americans. BLKS isn’t about the problems of a group, except for references to police indifference. It’s about four individual women navigating their personal issues.
Sociologists describe a phenomenon they call the Racial Empathy Gap. They have found that the brain fires differently when characters are not of one’s own race. Whites have trouble identifying when blacks control the fictional narrative and are in dominating roles.
Is that true? I wondered. I felt sympathy for the black protagonists in Pass Over, which played earlier this year at Steppenwolf. I recently read and liked the novel The Underground Railroad. Ahh, but their characters are in stereotypical situations — down-and-out in Pass Over and fleeing slavery in The Underground Railroad.
But would I have identified with white 20somethings in the same situations as the characters in BLKS? I doubt it — I’m not in my 20s and was married when I was — but the Racial Empathy Gap theory assumes that I would have felt more comfortable. Feeling more comfortable, I might have better appreciated seeing an intimate glimpse into everyday lives that are different from mine.
By the time the reviews of BLKS came out, I was prepared to not be surprised if they were positive. And they were, overwhelmingly so. Highly recommended by more than a half-dozen critics plus a Jeff Award nomination.
At the time of the brouhaha over Weiss’s review of Pass Over, there were calls for greater diversity of age and race among reviewers. (This blog defended Weiss’s right to say what she thought.) I now understand better than before why more diversity is desirable, although white male critics wrote glowing reviews of BLKS.
African Americans have always been expected to relate to white experience. Most books, plays, movies, and television shows are by whites and feature whites.
Now in a few instances the tables are being turned. I hope that the next time I see a play or a movie about African Americans who aren’t the victims of anything but their own inner demons, I remember about rethinking my first reaction that BLKS had little to say to me.