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Theatre in Review: seven methods of killing kylie jenner (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Tina Bannon, Leanne Henlon. Photo : Helen Murray/ArenaPAL

The title of Jasmine Lee-Jones' play is the sort of extreme statement that can unleash an outraged tweetstorm, which is pretty much what happens in seven methods of killing kylie jenner. Cleo, a Black, British graduate student working on a thesis about structural racism, vents her rage the Twitter handle "@Icognegro," detailing possible punishments for the youngest Kardashian. (Among her choices: poisoning, burning, flaying alive.) Of course, she's not serious. Then again, her anger is real: Jenner, she says, has appropriated many details of Black womanhood, including full lips and a curvy form, turning them into fashion fetishes. "But," she adds, "when Mac Instagrammed a picture of a Black model with lips of the same width/She was called ugly/Defiled/Reviled/While you are profiled by Vogue/Elle/A daily story on Snapchat."

If this sounds like a cranky opinion, Sheryl Lee Ralph made a similar case on the red carpet at the Golden Globe Awards the other night. Nevertheless, Cleo's intemperate expressions cause a massive digital stir, arousing critical commentary followed by threats of violence. Somebody even exhumes one of her old tweets, using it to make accusations of homophobia. As the controversy grows, Lee-Jones, who has a sharp ear for pop-culture cliches, also unrolls a series of handwringing news headlines; it's not every playwright who can faultlessly mimic the styles of Fox News, The Guardian, and France 24.

Rightly worried about a situation spinning out of control, Cleo's longtime best friend Kara stages an intervention, unleashing a confrontation that is lively, stimulating, and filled with hilarious trash talk. Chastised by Kara, Cleo responds, furiously, with a lengthy denunciation that begins, "Inside that tweet is hundreds of years of anti-blackness, cultural appropriation, and positive affirmations of capitalism that persist in creating historical and present-day wealth disparities between white women and black women." Kara, nonplussed, replies, "Just speak English, not dissertation." Kara, who has some tart observations of her own, sums up Cleo's typical boyfriend: "Tortured fakedeeps. Always artists. Usually, musicians or worse...actors. Nose piercings. Baby dreads. Tattoos of scriptures from when they used to be Christian. Daddy issues." In other riotous passages, Cleo calls out the Black community's reflexive piety about Martin Luther King ("And lest we forget he banged out cheating on Coretta") and fulminates over a tweeter who insists she must be "a 48-year-old white man from Ohio," while Kara fantasizes her future as a talking head on a reality series Women Who Kill. ("Well....to be honest the suspicions all started after what she did to Baby Annabel doll.")

Under Milli Bhatia's direction, Leanne Henlon (Cleo) and Tia Bannon (Kara) trade laughs and accusations with aplomb -- one easily believes that Cleo and Kara have a lengthy backstory of sisterhood, feuds, and in-jokes -- especially as their argument deepens, laying bare the personal reasons behind Cleo's grievances and cauterizing the unhealed wounds in the friendship. (Each has failed the other, and Kara's relatively light skin is a suppurating issue.) At its best, seven methods... is a funny, stimulating, and thoroughly of-this-moment piece of work, using comedy to offer a penetrating critique of celebrity, commodification, and racism.

It pains me to add that Bhatia's production fails to support the play in certain respects, most notably Elena Peña's sound design, which renders unintelligible the sequences detailing the Internet's furious response to Cleo's tweets; one of the play's central sources of conflict is lost in a mumble of noisy effects and vocal distortion. (To be sure, the dialogue is loaded with Internet jargon and only-in-the-UK references that cause a certain amount of confusion.) Lee-Jones also runs into trouble trying to find a suitable ending. A stunning climactic speech in which Cleo imagines subjecting Jenner to the horrors of slavery -- an aria that also conjures the spirit of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Venus Hottentot memorialized in Suzan-Lori Parks' play Venus -- is followed by a major drop in energy as the women symbolically "bury" their trauma; without Cleo's anger, the play has nowhere to go. And can we please call a moratorium on finales in which the actors glare at the audience confrontationally? At least here, as opposed to Dave Harris' Tambo and Bones and Confederates, the actors ultimately return to accept their well-deserved applause. But a staging idea that may have seemed innovative a year ago has become a cliché in record time.

The rest of the production, coming from the Royal Court in association with Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is rather better. Rajha Shakiry's set, dominated by an enormous fabric canopy -- it looks like a giant cobweb -- seems eccentric at first, but it is gorgeously lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, who uses a lovely pastel palette to illuminate scenes of online chaos. seven methods of killing kylie jenner has its weaknesses, but you'll want to add Lee-Jones to your list of playwrights to watch, and here's hoping we soon see Bannon and Henlon again. Their combined work is a blast of fresh air. --David Barbour

(12 January 2023)

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