Arinze Kené © Helen Murray
Misty by Arinzé Kene – Bush Theatre, London
Plays about the process of writing plays are very difficult to pull off. They need sharp, self-aware writing, and charismatic performance. Fortunately, Arinzé Kene, who both writes and performs Misty, has these requirements covered. An outrageously talented performer, he is subtle and direct, funny and physical, and has serious singing and rapping abilities up his sleeve. He brings them all together in a complex, intellectually rich piece which takes itself seriously while retaining its sense of humour.
Misty is an important commission for the Bush Theatre, celebrating its first year in its refurbished space, and for artistic director Madani Younis. In development for three years, it is a flagship show for the theatre’s identity under Younis, staging work about the place and the people of Shepherd’s Bush and the wider city. Kene’s play is about the expectations and assumptions placed on him as a black man writing an urban play. He’s developing a story about a man who gets into a fight on a night bus, but a right-on friend and his wife keep leaving him voice message critiques, accusing him of writing “a nigga play” and giving white audiences the suffering black stereotypes they expect.
Although this is a one man show, the staging is an impressive piece of teamwork. Director Omar Elerian brings characters into the periphery of Kene’s world. His older sister, played by a young girl (Rene Powell), gives him a very funny and surreal lecture on cultural symbolism. His friends Raymond and Donna record their joint voicemail messages dismissively, from behind radio mikes. A ‘hot-shot producer’ and Kene’s agent appear as dictatorial voices off. Designer Rajha Shakiry threads an orange balloon theme through the show, which illustrates the pressures on Kene and leads to two remarkable scenes – a piece of slapstick physical comedy when Kene becomes lodged inside a giant balloon, and a balloon-stuffed room which, in a spectacular reveal, references Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
The production is very well suited to Kene’s multi-faceted performance. He both explores and laughs at the social expectations of his writing. When he performs extracts from the play he is constantly fretting over, he is captivating as his night bus character and tells a story that seems both real and important. He does this through a series of rap performances accompanied by two musicians, Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod, on drums and keyboards. However, the status of this narrative is uncertain – is it a friend’s experiences, or is it stereotyped fiction? Kene unpicks big 21st London questions of racial and social polarisation and of gentrification, but does so in a way that is entirely his own.
Arinzé Kene is an exceptional performer, who clearly has the makings of a star. If he can make such an ambitious, complex and individual show work, it will be fascinating to see what he does next. Meanwhile, the Bush Theatre has delivered an original and effortlessly entertaining piece about the social issues of our time, which is pretty much a definition of its purpose.