Jasmine Lee-Jones’ debut play at the Royal Court Theatre is provocatively titled, but perfectly pitched, writes our arts contributor Samantha-Louise Hayden.
“NGL I find the name a bit problematic you know”
“The title is too much for me”
“It just makes me uncomfortable”
“The title’s very mad”
“It’s too far”
The group chat explodes the moment the link is shared. While we don’t like Kylie Jenner or the Kardashians (and we know why), many express the, admittedly valid, concern about watching a play in which the murder of a real living person is re-enacted on stage.
But that’s not what this is.
The play begins without warning, in darkness and without sound, juxtaposing the vibrant buzz of the audience’s lively conversation only moments earlier. In silence we watch as Cleo (Danielle Vitalis) and Kara (Tia Bannon) drag a body concealed by sheets on stage before throwing it into a grave. Instead of the actual murder the play’s title may lead you to anticipate, this is a visual representation of Cleo’s (@incognegro) online fantasy, detailed in her viral Twitter thread in which she suggests ways to kill the titular celebrity in response to her being lauded as a “self-made billionaire” by Forbes. The methods are ingenious, each relating to the myriad ways famous white women profit from imitating features that Black women are decried for having naturally.
Rajha Shakiry’s set design is striking: the acting platform is elevated and overhung by a canopy of entangled ropes and netting, its trailing cords simultaneously symbolising the Twitter threads on which this play is centred; the global system of computers that make up the internet; the noose.
A real strength of Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is its language and the way it brings together the terrible and the comedic. The physical copy of the script confirms what those in Black Twitter already know, the play’s “Twitterludes” that detail the online response to Cleo’s thread – which are the most stylistically inventive moments of this drama – are punctuated by memes, mimicking not only the experience of navigating Twitter but also the way our online language has seeped into our IRL vocabulary. Lee-Jones’ writing is at once familiar and elevated; lyrical and natural. Hearing it feels like listening to a beautiful amalgamation of all the Black women I know: the deeply intelligent, loud, empathetic, hilarious, acerbic, humble and impassioned women who make up my Black British community.
Some of the best theatre I’ve seen recently has been two-handers (think: The Fishermen) and this is no exception. Vitalis and Bannon are exceptionally matched here. Their performances, as Cleo and Kara and the host of online responders, are visceral and emotive, brilliantly illustrating what it is like for Black women to navigate their online and real-life relationships and encounters. As the twitterstorm takes its toll on their relationship, Cleo and Kara begin to glitch and the memes, acronyms and gifs of social media encroach upon their real-life speech, their physical performances becoming increasingly idiosyncratic and artistic. Poignantly, each meme used within the play is listed at the back of the playscript in the bibliography – “lest our labour and records be swept away again” – reinforcing the importance of crediting Black people for the cultural content they create and make popular.
Cleo in particular is a sensational character and Vitalis gives a fearless performance in the role. She depicts Cleo’s struggles to express her rage, pain and pride with subtlety, contextualising them within an academic context, the historical treatment of Black bodies and her rights as a human. Cleo is flawed. She makes the mistakes that 20 year olds make. And I love that neither the writer, the director nor the actress shy away from the fullness of this character.
Though the play is only 1 hour and 20 minutes long, with no interval, there were points where I felt it could have concluded earlier and still have been perfectly formed. However, beyond its narrative, this play has a mission and is determined to see it through. The eventual ending is flawless and makes the audience complicit, as much as those who “like” inflammatory tweets without commenting or retweeting or those who silently chuckle but don’t publicly condemn.
Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is, thankfully, barely about Kylie Jenner at all. It’s incredibly refreshing not to see a white person centred in a discussion about race. Yes, the title of Lee-Jones’ piece is provocative but it belies a far more nuanced and expansive exploration of Black-British womxnhood, queerness, the consumption of black bodies and the politics of being online than we might initially expect. While there is some weight to the argument that, like Cleo, Lee-Jones could be blocking some of her potential audience from accessing the true depth of her message by using “controversial” language in the title of her play, they’d be making a huge mistake by simply turning away without watching this amazing production. “They’re just sat there, not saying anything.”