The events of Jasmine Lee-Jones’s Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner are launched by a (real) March 2019 tweet in which Forbes labeled Jenner the “youngest self-made billionaire ever.” The Tweet, on every level, enrages Cleo (Leanne Henlon), a Black British graduate student who tweets under the anonymous handle “Incognegro,” and she snaps back with the hashtag #kyliejennerfidead and a series of tweets poetically excavating ways to kill. It’s a joke…but is it?
Lee-Jones reacted fast: the play premiered at London’s Royal Court in summer 2019, with a later London production in 2021, and was originally supposed to appear at Under the Radar in 2022, a festival that was of course canceled by Omicron. But January 2023 is a very different time in the Twittersphere from March 2019, or even 2021. A show built on a series of jokingly violent Tweets embedded in the very specific viewpoint of the Black, British, Gen Z, social- media-steeped character who creates them, was going to be a complicated thing to put in front of the kind of mostly white New York audience who goes to avant-garde theater even before Elon Musk started burning Twitter to the ground, and now it’s hard to know how to read it. This is a dynamic of which the show’s creators are aware, to be sure; the script’s epigraph is the famous line from To Be Young Gifted and Black that says “it is not addressed particularly to white people…it simply ignores you,” and you could say probably also say that it is not addressed particularly to a Gen X American with an uneasy relationship with social media such as myself. Which is to say: The show frustrated me in places, and I find it hard to assess how much of that is actually a token of its success in ignoring me; how much is my discomfort with the very online, meme-as-activism language and attitudes that the play slips deeper into as it proceeds; and how much is me doing the thing I do as a critic at every show, which is try to figure out what a show’s trying to do and whether it’s succeeding in that.
Kylie Jenner isn’t the only one Cleo is seethingly mad at. The targets of her rage include the world’s disrespect of and violence toward Black women; her best friend, Kara (Tia Bannon), for an incident that happened years ago but hasn’t stopped haunting Cleo; the academic world that expects her to “both sides” colonialism and slavery; herself for internalizing standards of beauty and slights from childhood; the boyfriend that’s just left her for a white woman; rage at how exhausting it is just to live in a Black female body in the twenty-first century, both IRL and online. It’s one thing to use her anonymous Twitter platform for acid observation and cultural critique, another to deliver increasingly fervid murder plans. Even if they’re a joke. Especially if they’re a joke. And she doesn’t deserve what’s about to rain down on her when she gets into it with Kylie Jenner on Twitter. Not all of it, anyway.
One really smart thing about Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, and Henlon’s brash, confident performance, is that both resist the impulse to make Cleo a hero. Her grievances are legitimate, her critiques incisive; she’s funny and smart and bold–but she’s also, as the script notes, “hella problematic.” Cleo is so inside her own head and so rooted in the rightness of her opinions and the righteousness of her oppression that she’s oblivious to the harms she herself has done to others, even (or perhaps especially) her best friend. (She’s still feeling slighted by Kara for the way Kara came out to her, even after being reminded how Cleo’s own behavior led to that outcome.) When she’s ultimately turned on by the Twitter mobs and reluctantly offers an apology, it feels both coerced and a little insincere: self-critique is not her strong suit.
Lee-Jones’s character portraits here are sharp, both Cleo and Kara, who seems to have made more peace with living in the world without ceasing to be hurt by it. Director Milli Bhatia draws out all the nuance and shades of emotion embedded in this long friendship, and Bannon gives Kara a vulnerability that never means letting Cleo walk all over her. At the same time, the writing can get so zeroed in on the precision with which it wants to address identity politics and limn the intersectional context in which these characters are situated that it tends toward the didactic. It’s to make that kind of nuanced analysis conversational, let alone stageable. The observations of the ways that intersectionality plays out in their lives and their friendship are incisive, but it sometimes feels like the playwright doesn’t trust that the stories they tell will make those points without underscoring them.
But the piece requires Bannon and Henlon not only to play Kara and Cleo–hard enough, as their characters mix raw emotion with intensely stylized language and as their online selves start to encroach upon their IRL selves and they have to give voice to memes and emojis–but also to embody the multiple voices of the Twitter threads responding to Cleo’s Tweets. The concept intrigues–it’s almost as if Twitter become some sort of zombie virus creeping into their brains and bodies), but the execution gets confusing, especially since the play doesn’t give them much visual or theatrical help in embodying the Twittersphere–instead, a giant set piece of an intricate illuminated tree (designed by Rajha Shakiry) fills the space, descending to encroach as the play goes on. As a visual metaphor for the branching threads of Tweets and subTweets, it might work in a different play, but here it felt like it drew focus without really adding anything. I think with either just the human element–two people on a mostly bare stage trying to embody both the light-hearted memes and the vicious doxxing of the internet–or using the tools of theater design to show the relentlessness, the constant shifts, and the complex two-way relationship between Cleo and Twitter, the piece might have felt more complete. With Bannon and Henlon taking on the Twitterludes (hilariously and with the utmost commitment, to be sure), they become a separate parallel stream to the conversation between Cleo and Kara rather than a simultaneous onslaught. To me, it feels like a missed opportunity to weave the two threads, both enormously complex themselves, into a more holistic whole. But maybe I’m just not who this play is talking to, after all.
[Note: the performance that I saw had some technical difficulties affecting the lighting and sound design, so I’m intentionally not addressing those elements of the production.]