|image source: Bush Theatre|
After much anticipation, I finally saw Misty at the Bush Theatre. A new play by Arinzé Kene, this exciting production used a daring mélange of techniques in its semi-autobiographical, psychological exploration of what it means to tell Black stories now. Playing with the conventions of the play-within-a-play, the narrative-based performance rested heavily on a current of live music played onstage by joint musical directors Adrian McLeod on keys, and Shiloh Coke on drums. Embracing the full potential of live theatre, Misty seamlessly combined its technical elements of live music, pre-recorded sound, video, and projections, to paint the backdrop to Kene's words. The tech-heavy factors trod a delicate balance to complement Kene's mesmerising performance, within an effectively simple set design by Rajha Shakiry.
Without giving too much away, Misty explores the pressures and side-effects that identity politics can have on Black artists. Arinzé wants to write the hard-hitting tragedy of a young working-class Black man in London and his inevitable clash with the police. Arinzé's friends and family, however, are less than impressed, and berate him for playing to stereotypes and creating caricatures of Black identity. Fighting - literally - with his anxieties, Arinzé struggles to find a middle ground between his artistic and emotional desires, and his social responsibilities as a Black artist.
What makes Misty so effective is Kene's ability to weave together this field of debate which is as rich an varied as the people it seeks to represent. He does this with tongue-in-cheek humour, pathos, and sensitivity. Directly manipulating the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief, Kene dances in and out of the fourth wall of the theatre space, referencing a host of theatrical conventions only to give them his own, individual spin. Coincidentally, I watched Misty whilst finishing reading Paul Gilroy's seminal 1993 text The Black Atlantic, which explores all these issues and more, putting them into the context of several hundred years' of Black intellectual debate. In Misty, Kene takes these issues out of the academy and - perhaps more pertinently - off Twitter, and articulates them with wit and panache.
One theme which I found under-examined was Kene's own sexuality. Stripping twice during the performance, his gaze confronts the audience directly, but this moment of double-spectacle isn't interrogated. There's a vast body of literature on Black sexuality and the White gaze, and considering that Misty's stream-of-consciousness includes an anxious dialogue with the desires and assumptions of a typical theatre audience (which is too-often white, middle-class, and on the wrong side of middle-age), it's a puzzling omission. But that doesn't detract from everything else that Misty incorporates onstage. It's a wonderful piece, and I can't wait to see what Kene writes next.
Misty is playing at the Bush Theatre until 21 April.