Provocative ‘Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner’ at Woolly Mammoth


Even if you don’t know the first thing about Kylie Jenner — and that in itself would count as quite an accomplishment — you’ll get what sparks the adrenaline-charged hyperbole of “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner.”

Jasmine Lee-Jones’s play, now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is a sort of irreverent manifesto, a river of youthful anguish as channeled through the chaotic platforms of social media. The declaration has to do with the indignities and deeper wounds routinely inflicted on Black women, particularly those with darker skin. The hurts find expression in an often funny, emotional rant about the hypocritical views of beauty in Western culture and the claim that White Instagram phenoms appropriate Black sensuality for commercial purposes.

The hyperkinetic production, directed by Milli Bhatia, arrives here from London with two dazzling actresses, Tia Bannon and Leanne Henlon. They portray Kara and Cleo, friends leaving adolescence behind but not the scars that have complicated their alliance: Henlon’s Cleo resents lighter-skinned Kara for the racial double standard that posits her as more attractive; Kara, a lesbian, still nurses the hurt inflicted by Cleo’s nasty tweets, years earlier, about homosexuality.

Their long-simmering bitternesses boil over, courtesy of the Twitter controversy Cleo ignites: a series of inflammatory posts, enumerating the seven vicious ways she proposes to take her anger out on Jenner, an internet influencer with 380 million Instagram followers. The diatribes, which freak out nervous Kara — who worries about the online backlash against Cleo — spell out in sometimes graphic detail the punishments Cleo has in mind. The litany of murderous “methods” allows Cleo to vent her frustration over the advantages she sees Jenner taking by cosmetically altering some of her features to mirror Black women.

On a set by Rajha Shakiry that is dominated by a massive, looming tangle of ropes and strings — the web in sculptural form — Lee-Jones portrays both the friends’ feud and the blowback Cleo receives on social media. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s evocative lighting shifts dramatically for the internet interludes, when Bannon and Henlon assume the personae of various users who heap abuse on Cleo.

American ears might not be accustomed to the actors’ London accents and slang; coupled with liberal infusions of internet initialisms, the play offers listening challenges. The production was staged last month at the Public Theater in New York, where I first encountered it, and where large portions of the script came across as garbled. Technical refinements have been introduced since, and the incarnation at Woolly is more clearly audible. (For those who might need it, the program includes a glossary of abbreviations commonly used on WhatsApp and other platforms, so arrive early and study up!)

As Cleo will eventually own up to, the verbal attack on Jenner is a grossly inappropriate attention-getting device, an accusation that can also be leveled in a superficial reading of Lee-Jones’s play. More incisively, Cleo’s provocations reveal the more profound tensions in the lives of two women whose concerns would seem so aligned. Indeed, at times, even Kara professes not to understand why Cleo’s rage runs so deep.

“Doing a Twitter tirade isn’t going to solve anything!” Kara pleads. There may be wisdom in that utterance, but it entirely misses Cleo’s point — that she has been marginalized twice, first by her own community and then by twisted, media-driven value systems that sort celebrities by skin color. The play offers audiences the opportunity to eavesdrop on Cleo and Kara as they puzzle the issues out, on the characters’ own, intimate terms.

Under Bhatia’s direction, Bannon and Henlon authoritatively alternate between the private and public domains in which Kara and Cleo struggle to understand one another. It’s apt that at evening’s end, the performers stare out at the audience, in a period of serene wordlessness. All that the anxiety-producing noise of the web is good for, it seems, is fostering miscommunication.

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, by Jasmine Lee-Jones. Directed by Milli Bhatia. Set, Rajha Shakiry; lighting, Jessica Hung Han Yun; sound, Elena Peña; movement, Delphine Gaborit. About 90 minutes. Through March 5 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.

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