Written by Jasmine Lee-Jones, directed by Milli Bhatia, designer Rajha Shakiry
Royal Court Theatre, 4 – 27 July 2021
Review by Oladipo Agboluaje
Playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Alfred Fagon Award-winning Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was originally staged at the Royal Court’s smaller Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2019. This revival in the main downstairs theatre uses a traverse stage, like a catwalk at a fashion show. The performance loses none of its impact from playing in this less intimate space. Director Milli Bhatia moves the action along swiftly and urgently, but the play never feels rushed.
The threads of a net hang ominously over Rajha Shakiry’s sparse, darkly lit set which gives room for the two talented actors (Leanne Henlon as Cleo and Tia Bannon as her friend Kara) to physicalise and voice a diverse range of attitudes and opinions on Twitter in response to Cleo’s (aka @Incognegro) explosive social media musings on ways of killing media personality Kylie Jenner. As with such things, a local tweet in a bedroom can turn into a global storm. And what a storm it is.
The play packs in themes of consent, colourism, capitalist co-optation of black female bodies, social media, celebrity, identity and representation, sexuality, black liberation politics and more, all dealt with in the deftness of replicating social media tweets but grounded in the experiences of the characters. Yet the focus is always on the representation of black women versus the oftentimes harsh reality of their lives, dehumanised and devalued by society. Black women’s bodies and creativity are co-opted through capitalist commodification, but the profits are appropriated by white females. Cleo fantasises about the ultimate form of cancel culture to remedy this situation, suggesting different ways of killing Kylie Jenner whom she sees as emblematic of the problem.
The play is not confined to just one long screed written in social media-speak. The relationship between dark-skinned Cleo and light-skinned Kara as they text each other back and forth in their bedrooms is complicated by the themes they handle and how they deal with the events of their shared past. This gives the play an emotional heft, which was clearly appreciated by the mostly youngish press night audience. The drama is further complicated by the contradictory nature of the characters, subject to the uncertainty of youth. When an old homophobic tweet is brought to light, Cleo herself becomes a victim of that catch-all term ‘cancel culture’. The actors handle these shifts with dexterity.
The last third of the play dwells on the exploitation of Sarah Baartman, who died in 1815 but whose remains were on display in a Paris Museum until 2002. Baartman, the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus’, was paraded in freak shows around Europe, and was Jasmine Lee-Jones’ inspiration for writing Seven Methods. Lee-Jones sees in Sarah the apotheosis of the commodification of black women’s bodies. The corpse we see Cleo and Kara bury at the start of the play turns out not to be Kylie Jenner but the trauma of two friends engaged in a ritual of self-healing.
Lee-Jones has written a play that centres black women’s lives in all their messy, complicated and contradictory natures. Seven Methods is not afraid to show the vulnerability masked within the trope of the strong black woman. It is also a play that rejects victimhood, a sentiment vocally shared by the audience.
Photo by Myah Jeffers