If there was an award for most formally inventive and of-the-moment new playscript, it should go hands-down to Jasmine Lee-Jones for seven methods of killing kylie jenner. The provocatively titled two-hander just opened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, in association with New York’s Public Theatre, in a production imported intact from sell-out runs at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Written in scenes that alternate between real life and the Twitterverse, the play follows the heartrendingly complex friendship between two Black women in their early twenties — Cleo, who is darker-skinned and straight, and Kara, who is lighter-skinned and queer — both struggling to own a self that is not societally hated.
The scenes in real life are by turns comic and trenchant and written in transfixingly fresh dialog, a patois of internet and Black English slang that the extraordinarily talented actors, Leanne Henlan (Cleo) and Tia Bannon (Kara), deliver with verve. (There is a glossary in the program and here, which I highly recommend reading beforehand.)
The Twitterverse interludes, however, are written in tweets containing memes, gifs, and emojis. Though they serve a crucial dramatic function (which I’ll get to), on the page they’re a sequence of screen grabs from Cleo’s timeline, unplayable visuals that must be performed anyway — a challenge the production tries to rise to not with projections (as might another show with scripted socials) but with dizzying sound and light cues and antic choreography by the cast. These usually confusing timeline scenes do not work nearly as well as the intervening dialog scenes, which, tightly directed by Milli Bhatia, build incrementally with narrative force and shattering candor.
Audience seating is on three sides of a wooden platform set by Rajha Shakiry that features an abstract treelike shape dangling filaments suggesting brain neurons or a web or a cloud. In the darkness birds tweet, then suddenly lighting designed by Jessica Hung Han Yan floods the tree shape with explosions of color and strobe, sound designed by Elena Peña serves up epic thunder claps, and we are transported to someplace that is both real and not.
What triggers the play’s propulsive plot is Cleo’s reaction when she learns that Fortune Magazine has named makeup mogul Kylie Jenner, a privileged white woman, a “self-made” billionaire. Enraged, Cleo, as @INCOGNEGRO, starts a series of hate tweets calling out Jenner for appropriation of Black women’s culture — an important component of which has to do with fullness of lips — and calling for Kylie Jenner’s death. Kara tries to persuade her longtime friend to chill out and desist, but Cleo persists in her wishful tweeting of homicidal fantasies, which become increasingly more graphic and violent, more specifically about how the white beauty standard Kylie Jenner embodies diminishes Black women’s esteem for their own bodies. Meanwhile, the Twitterverse explodes in tweet-hate against @INCOGNEGRO, piling on vitriol including threats of doxing and rape.
The beating heart of the play is not a scathing critique of social media and cancel culture, however; it’s what transpires between Cleo and Kara while this furious online drama flares. They look at who they are to each other, who they have been in their real lives to each other, and that means going to a well of grievance and pain. Colorism has come between them: Cleo, not feeling beautiful, accuses Kara of “light-itis.” Kara counters that being light-skinned has meant unwanted attention from men. To the sound of a heartbeat, Cleo relates a years-ago party at which she was sexually assaulted and Kara “didn’t say jack.” Also, Kara tells how once years ago when they were sharing a bed, Kara innocently tried to kiss Cleo, and Cleo repelled her, beginning a years-long silence during which Kara could not come out to her best friend. Theirs is a history of past “fuckeries” and a well of many tears.
Bannon and Hanlon have portrayed Kara and Cleo since a London run in 2022, and they live in their roles so seamlessly we forget they are acting. Brilliantly cast against sexual-orientation stereotype — Cleo’s slightly more athletic; Kara’s slightly more balletic — they seem to dance through their scenes (movement direction is by Delphine Gaborit). Their characters’ every movement and breath seem known so well between them that it is as if they are synced on Bluetooth.
So when the resolution between them comes, enormous emotion comes as well. Henlon as Cleo delivers a monolog of confession and contrition that is breathtaking in its lucidity and transparency and that heals the harm her hate-tweeting has done to the friendship. Then, amazingly, she follows with a weed-inspired paean to the 18th-century South African–born Sarah Baartman and turns that exploited and mocked sideshow attraction into an empowering savior figure — for Black girls who have not yet considered loving their beautiful bodies enough.
As a parable about young Black women’s journey to self-esteem, seven ways of killing kylie jenner at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is killing it.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
seven methods of killing kylie jenner plays through March 3, 2023, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC (see calendar for performance schedule). Tickets (starting at $29, with discounts available for those 30 and under, military, educators, and more) can be purchased online, by phone at (202) 393-3939, or via email at email@example.com. All performances will include on-stage seating for a flat rate of $29/seat. Information about Accessibility Performances is here.
The playbill for seven methods of killing kylie jenner is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks must be worn at all times while in the building when not actively eating or drinking. Learn more about Woolly Mammoth’s health and safety protocols at woollymammoth.net/about-us/safety/.