Arinzé Kene’s play Misty is a collection of rap numbers and skits about a fare dodger, Lucas, from Hackney. Lucas (played by Kene) gets into a scuffle on a bus and is later arrested for entering London Zoo without a ticket. That’s the entire narrative. Obviously, Kene can’t create an evening’s entertainment from such meagre pickings, so he turns his tribulations as a dramatist into the show’s second storyline.
Playwrights moaning about writing plays is a theme of scant interest to audiences, but Kene enlists our sympathy by examining his quest to write a drama that satisfies both black people and the playgoing bourgeoisie. His friends predict that Lucas’s story will end up as a ‘nigger play’, or an example of ‘urban jungle safari shit’. Kene dramatises the problem of stereotyping as follows. A female friend lectures him about Hollywood’s false portrayal of black people as violent. Then she tells Kene that she’ll burn down the theatre if she dislikes the play about Lucas. Then she says that she was joking. (Everyone in the theatre laughed.) Then she says that she wasn’t joking and that she will burn down the theatre. (Everyone laughed again, but less warmly.) I’m not sure if this is the best way to dissociate black people from violence.
Kene examines the sorrows of Lucas further. He’s a thief who steals from his own family and he hates white yuppies, or ‘viruses’ as he calls them, whose gentrification of Hackney has caused rents to rise. He visits a hipster café which, he claims, occupies the site of a dismantled children’s playground. As he takes his seat he’s scolded by the staff for pronouncing ‘café’ without its second syllable (would that ever happen?) and after complaining that the menu is overcomplicated he threatens to kneecap the waiter. It’s no surprise that poor Lucas can’t prosper in chic Hackney and yet he blames the ‘viruses’ rather than his own actions for his predicament. His songs encourage riots in London. ‘Too much compromising,’ he tells us, in rhyme, will lead to ‘black smoke rising’ which he considers a valid means of ‘chastising’ people who have been ‘with Lucifer harmonising’.
The show’s second half is much duller than the first because Kene can’t find a satisfactory conclusion. ‘Ow you goan end dis urban shit?’ he says, articulating his problem with more directness than sophistication. The real difficulty is that the characters lack interest or sympathy. And the storytelling is botched. We hear of three women, Jade, Tracy and Dimples, but we can’t be certain how they relate to the male personalities because Kene doesn’t bother to signal his frequent shifts of character between himself and Lucas. Laziness of that kind is the hallmark of an artist who disregards the audience because the audience hasn’t hired him. Kene’s paymasters are the Arts Council and the Bush Theatre, which commissioned the show back in 2015. And Kene has been overindulged by his director, Omar Elerian, who writes about the production as if it were a turning-point in western art. ‘That night the idea for what would become Misty was born.’ Come off it, squire. All you’ve got here is a scrapbook of songs, sketches, blacktivist rhetoric, and a lot of impenetrable symbolism involving orange balloons. When Kene writes a play with a decent storyline and likeable characters, I’ll come and see it. He’s a performer of great charm and charisma led astray by bad advice and public money.
Underground Railroad Game is about two school teachers, one white, one black, who explain the history of American slavery to their class. While doing so, they become romantically involved. But their pillow talk consists of contrived racist insults so it’s impossible to care about their affair. The white guy (Scott R. Sheppard) likens sex with a black woman to ‘a journey into the heart of darkness’. His playmate (Jennifer Kidwell) impersonates a ditzy blonde and asks him what name they should give their next Labrador. Then the show goes insane. Kidwell removes her top and Sheppard suckles her left breast. Burrowing under her skirts, he performs oral sex while she simulates a Vesuvian orgasm. She then transforms herself into a dominatrix, and after forcing him to strip naked she stimulates him with a ruler and orders him to spank himself while screaming ‘nigger-lover’ for about ten minutes.
In a way the show is a work of genius. Kidwell and Sheppard seem to be exhibitionists who enjoy thrashing each other in public, and they’ve cannily persuaded Soho Theatre (and its sponsor, the Arts Council) to indulge their sexual tastes. Good for them. But this is an Amsterdam floor show, not a work of drama. The difference is that an Amsterdam audience would probably head for the exits rather than endure the script’s persistent and gratuitous racism. The crowd in Soho, many baffled, stayed to the end.