We’ve arrived at a moment in the theater, long overdue, when we are seeing Black narratives told with greater frequency and clarity. But the challenge for Black creators to get their stories told and the weight of getting it “right” when the opportunities have been so scarce loom large — and have turned many artists toward self-reflection and theater that’s about theater-making.
We’ve seen that anxiety in recent works like Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop,” the Tony winner about a Black queer man struggling to write a musical version of his life story, as well as in Jordan Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo,” which opens with a speech intended to explode the traditions of stay-in-your-seat-and-keep-quiet theatergoing. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-winning “Fairview” further shattered the fourth wall to make privileged theatergoers squirm right out of their seats.
The uber-talented Nigerian-born British actor and singer Arinzé Kene also goes meta with his virtually one-man show, “Misty,” which arrives at Off Broadway’s The Shed after a successful run in the U.K. With it, he brings all of his anxieties about representation to bear, as well as some additional concerns about whether American audiences will be able to follow his East London accent. (No worries on that score.)
He also makes his insecurities literal in a uniquely visual way: with the repeated motif of an orange balloon that is inflated and deflated much like his ego around this long-in-the-works theater project — at one point he is literally trapped inside a giant balloon and comically struggles to pry himself loose and chart a path forward. (Rajha Shahiry’s set design, Daniel Denton’s video projections and Jackie Shemesh’s lighting contribute greatly to the visual presentation.)
Kene wants to tell parallel stories about the plight of young Black men in a big city, ones who can get caught up in a cycle of violence before becoming victims themselves, as well as the changes wrought by gentrification of mostly-nonwhite neighborhoods. Kene delivers these stories in catchy rap tunes (backed by keyboardist Liam Godwin and percussionist Nadine Lee) as well as monologues that often veer into poetry-slam syncopation that show off his impressive vocal gifts. It’s no wonder he earned an Olivier Award nomination last year for playing Bob Marley in London’s “Get Up, Stand Up!”
But Kene is savvy enough to recognize that this story, and even this form of storytelling, could make him seem like a “generic, angry, young Black man,” as his teacher friend Donna (Lee) tells him, who seeks to monetize narratives about “Black trauma” for personal gain while also reinforcing stereotypes. As his chef pal Raymond (Godwin) adds, “It seems that some Black writers ‘conveniently’ wanna write narratives that majority white audiences are interested in seeing about Black people.” (Donna also aptly laments that films where Black characters aren’t suffering, including rom-coms like “Love Jones,” never seem to perform at the box office the way that slavery dramas like “Django Unchained” or “12 Years a Slave” do: “We never get a cycling-through-the-city montage.”)
The naysayers also include his sister (played as a school-uniformed girl, with Ifeoluwa Adeniyi and Braxton Paul alternating in the role), a theatrical producer (cleverly voiced with carefully chosen audio clips of Barack Obama) and a theatrical agent (Maya Angelou is called in for posthumous vocal duty here). There’s a lot that’s clever about all this, and director Omar Elerian and his design team keep the action moving even as some of these meta elements begin to feel repetitive.
In the end, Kene winds up dismissing his doubts to tell his chosen story — a deliberately provocative rant against racial injustice that winds up reinforcing many of the fears of his friendly detractors. Kene can tell whatever narrative about the Black experience he wants, of course, but his sharpest, most original and deepest storytelling remains in the meta space.
When he dives fully into the plight of displaced Black men, his ideas get squishy and as hard to grasp as a deflating balloon. We never really understand the forces motivating his childhood friend Lucas, whose behavior after a scuffle on a night bus becomes increasingly criminal (and, frankly, indefensible). And his critique of gentrification remains almost entirely on the surface — like sidewalks turning into “pramadeddon.” (A clever line.) Kene complains that Redhead Eddie has moved into Dreadlock Rasta’s apartment just below his, but nothing about where his Black neighbor ended up or why this is such a loss to him or the community. We also hear about the closure of unnamed “small businesses,” but no specific examples to bring the effect on local culture to life.
Kene closes the show on a note that is both defensive and assertive, with a profane verbal bird-flip to the mostly white audience at The Shed. And as if on cue, they stood and cheered.