When entering the Basement’s main stage, the first thing I note is that the theatre space is laid out in traverse – with audience members facing each other, all fully masked. This leads my Pākehā companions to comment on whether the reactions of the people opposite will be a welcome, or unwelcome, distraction. Given the subject matter – and as a cynical, queer, WOC – I privately wonder how audience members might contrive their responses to outwardly showcase more outrage, concern or care, if they were exposed and without a mask.
Black, glossy, strips of material hang from the ceiling and cover the walls around us; a selection of raised blocks form the playing space. As audience members find their seats, the show notes offers extensive, complementary information; it later becomes apparent that this additional work is important to digest prior to the show.
The opening section is a no-spoiler, but is quickly followed by the catalyst of the play – Cleo (Batanai Mashingaidze) and her public reaction to a tweet from Forbes which claims Kylie Jenner is the first self-made billionaire. ‘Self-made.’ Cleo is outraged by the term, since Kylie Jenner has capitalised on the wealth and contacts of her famous family, and curated a beauty line which profits off ‘blackfishing’ – where white women use various methods to appear racially ambiguous.
Colourful lighting states signify transitions between IRL (in real life) and TL – the online presence or ‘timelines’ of Cleo and Kara – with choreographed movement and external character voices used to create a slick world outside of Cleo’s bedroom. Cleo vents through graphic depictions of violence in 140 Twitter ‘characters.’ Her queer friend Kara (Grace Bentley-Tsibuah) is unable to see Cleo’s point of view, and wants Cleo to let it go. Cleo’s frustrated by her friend and airs her grievances: they have differing experiences of black womanhood due to what Cleo describes as Kara’s ‘light-skin privilege.’ As the production develops in complexity, you are hard-pressed to leave without a clearer understanding of Cleo’s point of view. Yet Kara isn’t a side-kick. She holds her ground, with Grace’s deft-touch bringing mutli-layered complexity to the role.
While the production could be viewed as tool for educating as well as entertaining the predominantly Pākehā audience, this is by no means the primary point of the text as written by Jasmine Lee-Jones. The play depicts two highly articulate, intelligent and multi-faceted black women taking up space. An example of this is when Kara uses the term ‘poly-syllabic’ while asking Cleo to stop using big words. It’s brilliant. There are no caricatures, no extreme exaggerations to encourage us to sympathise with one character over the other.
Originally premiering in London Royal Court Theatre in 2019, seven methods of killing kylie jenner is set in London and, as the show is deeply rooted in the experiences of two black British women, director Keagan Carr Fransch honours this instead of adapting the material to Aotearoa. This means the snappy, slang-filled vernacular is no doubt occasionally hard for a Kiwi audience to follow, but this unapologetic decision garners a lot of respect. The predominantly Pākehā audience isn’t pandered to, in a systemically racist space where white people have long been the gate-keepers.
The show notes offer a dictionary of abbreviations, but what stands out through the use of this ‘text-speak’ is that the play – and delivery by both performers – is exceptionally funny. Batanai and Grace work together with impeccable comic-timing, a duo so tight they dazzle like no other, yet are equally as confident and captivating in their silences and rage. The show is a physical feat of endurance, with clear direction from Keagan Carr Fransch to create visual, stylised movement throughout which showcases the skills of the two performers.
As Cleo publicly apologises for homophobic comments, I find myself assessing the audience – a standing ovation filling the room. There is no doubt that we all have work to do if we are to unpick our own ignorances and mis-steps, and to demonstrate that allyship is more than performative act for our own self-aggrandisement.
As a British WOC, I confidently followed the dialogue and felt moved and saddened by the piece. It took me a long time to articulate my thoughts, considering my black British friend who emigrated here with me from Melbourne in 2019. She planned to work in TV production, but left Aotearoa after a few short months. She felt this country wasn’t a place for someone like her. I wish she’d been able to see this show here.
seven methods of killing kylie jenner has been so well received that there will be TWO extra performances – 3pm, 11 & 18 June ($28 for matinee). The show will undoubtedly sell out, and rightly so. Silo Theatre’s return to the stage is a welcomed – and welcoming – window into the lives of women who we don’t often hear from. Go, and listen.
seven methods of killing kylie jenner plays Basement Theatre 2-18 June, 2022.