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Theatre in Review: Misty (The Shed)

Arinzé Kene. Photo: Maria Baranova/Courtesy of The Shed

How much self-consciousness can a play handle before it tumbles over? That's the stress test playwright/star Arinzé Kene applies in Misty, a play about a play, or maybe a monologue about a monologue, with a side order of comic exchanges. It begins as a solo show, written in a rap/poetry slam style, about a young Black man whose life spirals down following an incident on a London bus. Not that he is identified as Black to begin with; the script describes him as a Virus in a world of Blood Cells, a metaphor that, eventually, will be flipped: He will become the Blood Cell, in a world of Viruses. Got that?

The piece described above is, Kene says, based on a true-life incident involving his friend Lucas. The opening passage is tough, original in its use of language, and vividly described. Soon, however, the playwright cuts it off, taking time to deflect the negative comments of his loved ones. First up are friends Raymond and Donna, who chastise him for creating another "angry generic black man." Raymond tries to soft-peddle his criticism; noting that "I looked around and most of the audience were...most of them don't look like us," wondering about the necessity of another "inner-city play." Donna, who minces no words, calls it "a n----a play."

Upping the ante, Donna, in full fury, denounces Django Unchained and Twelve Years a Slave as Black torture porn, raging that films like Love Jones and Brown Sugar don't succeed financially because "'the black folk in those stories ain't suffering. We never get a cycling-through-the-city montage in films. I want a cycling-through-the-city montage of a girl who looks like me." Speaking for Lucas, Kene wonders, "Doesn't his story deserve to be told, too?"

Then there's Kene's sister, who warns him, "You better not be writing some red-hot buffoonery to pander to the voyeuristic needs of the bourgeoisie." He is, she warns, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, serving a "psychosocial engineering program [that] is disseminated to you through news, education, radio, television, film -- deployed in all sectors right from the government to...the theatre." All in all, it looks like the opening night party guest list is going to be pretty thin.

To be sure Kene is facing a real quandary, one that surely must plague many writers of color, and, in its best moments, Misty grapples with the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the writer's desire to deliver documentary truth versus demands that he reshape the cultural conversation by focusing on other, more pleasant, realities. Providing a powerful opposing pressure is Kene's "hotshot producer," who won't entertain such qualms, talking instead of "taking Broadway by storm" and "captivating the entire country." That's a too-easy stab at satire; if Kene really thinks Lucas' downbeat ghetto tale is prime Broadway fare, he needs to spend a little more time in the Theatre District.

Really, Lucas' story is Kene's vehicle for decrying the spectacle of Black, working-class neighborhoods being colonized by chicly dressed, latte-sipping creative types and their families. Giving voice to Lucas' character, he laments the "yummy mummies and French au pairs" pushing around small children in a "pramageddon" that turns sidewalks into treacherous obstacle courses. "This is my nightmare, I need to wake up," he adds.

As you can tell, Misty is quite the juggling act and not all the balls remain in the air: Its basic structure interweaves Lucas' narrative with scenes of Kene fending off his detractors, a strategy that leaves the former undeveloped as the same issues are repeatedly litigated. The action is dotted with stunts that exist to call attention to Kene as a performer. Large orange balloons are a major visual motif, and, at one point, he is in trapped inside one, fighting to get out, a bit of business oddly reminiscent of a Cirque du Soleil clown act. Kene also changes into a wet suit, so his sister can pelt him with water balloons while assaulting him verbally. "Do you care about the impact you have on people?" she asks. "When you reach official Uncle Tom status, is there, like, a special handshake? Do Americans even understand you without subtitles?" By this point, he seems to be struggling to keep the audience entertained while pursuing the script's themes.

With so many throughlines vying for the audience's attention, Misty spends nearly two hours running in circles, with Lucas' story becoming overwhelmed by comic bits about the consequences of writing plays about people like Lucas. And, after a certain point, Lucas' complaints about the loss of his neighborhood take on a monotonous, misanthropic quality: "They've even built coffee shops where they used to sell beers/Where arty viruses meet up and chew off each other's ears/And further down the road, they've built a theatre/But us blood cells don't watch bearded men in leotards/Thank you very much but fuck Shakespeare!" It almost sounds like he wants to build a wall.

Kene is a commanding performer, and he spares himself nothing during what amounts to a two-hour sprint; he also gets solid support from the musicians Liam Godwin and Nadine Lee, who also play Raymond and Donna. (For reasons I can't explain, Kene's sister, who is approaching forty, is played at alternating performances, by the young girls Ifeoluwa Adeniyi and Braxton Paul.) But Omar Elerian's production undermines the star with distracting effects. Rajha Shakiry's set, defined by a series of tilted, geometric pieces, provides a suitably bleak landscape, which is generally lit with precision by Jackie Shemesh. But Daniel Denton's video design -- which includes pulsing cityscapes and montages of male silhouettes -- steal focus from Kene; Elena Peña sometimes imposes loud sound effects that make the actor hard to hear. And Shemesh occasionally indulges in strobe chases that are a trial to one's eyeballs.

Kene provides a wicked twist late in the evening, going out with a proudly defiant attitude, but Misty still ends on an oddly inconclusive note. This one is a tangle: A charismatic writer-performer with a strong theatrical sense and a gift for comic invective, who gets lost in an overly ambitious structure, often battling a flashy production design. He is a talent to watch, but he should tell the truth as he sees it and leave the worries to others. --David Barbour

(20 March 2023)

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