Misty at the Bush Theatre
Cor, if you’re in any way bored of theatre, go and see Arinze Kene’s Misty. Alongside director Omar Elerian, the dramatist mashes together live music (oh man, Shiloh Coke’s drumming!), spoken word, video projection, direct address, rap, audio sampling and, well, balloons, to create a kaleidoscopic journey into the mind of the black artist and the centre of the gentrified capital. It’s heart-pounding, blood-pumping, uncategorisable magic.
Using a shifting metaphor of viruses and blood cells, the actor and creator dives into the “city creature”, a world that seeks to squeeze out or suffocate the black people who live there. It’s a story that starts and ends in violence, potentially familiar in a way designed to deliberately provoke a discussion about representation.
Representation isn’t just who’s on stage. It’s not even necessarily who’s writing what’s on stage. Arguably, at its most overlooked it’s about the kind of narratives that are allowed to be performed – the ones minority voices are pushed towards and those they are pulled away from. Kene uses these ideas as the spine of his show, which is a soul-searching excavation of the expectations and pressures – from both producers and one’s own community – that come with being a black playwright.
He doesn’t so much pre-empt criticism as fold it into his play, a chorus of responses running alongside the main plot. Sort of like the meta-commentary found in Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, but crossed with the urban sprawl of Leo Butler’s Boy.
Friends tell him that what he’s written is tantamount to minstrelsy, that it’s the kind of black trauma white viewers lap up – Misty is hyperconscious of the likely makeup of its audience – and that it’s socially damaging “jungle shit”. The leading man never exactly dismisses these concerns, but rather responds with questions of his own. Why can’t a play by someone like him just be a play? And don’t certain voices deserve to be heard even if they fit some pre-existing genre of white-friendly black art? It’s a complex debate that the production doesn’t seek to answer or end, but merely contribute to in a way that is formally and aesthetically exhilarating.
Words can’t really do justice to Kene’s performance. It’s a tour de force by a force of nature, a mesmerising multi-hyphenate showcase that blends arch theatrical artifice with something far rawer. Done badly, Misty would be unbearable, a clever-clever attempt to have one’s cake and eat it. Instead, Kene has produced a landmark work that truly deserves to shoot him into the stratosphere.
Misty is at the Bush Theatre from 15th March until 21st April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.