Features Published 3 July 2019

Jasmine Lee-Jones and Milli Bhatia: “Why do we have to inherit structures in order to make stuff?”

Milli Bhatia and Jasmine Lee-Jones discuss 'seven methods of killing kylie jenner', confronting power structures, and bringing black Twitter to the stage.
Ava Wong Davies

Jasmine Lee-Jones and Milli Bhatia in rehearsals for ‘seven methods of killing kylie jenner’. Photo: Helen Murray

“Did you read the play?” Milli Bhatia and Jasmine Lee-Jones ask me in the Royal Court bar, on a lunchbreak from the seven methods of killing kylie jenner rehearsal room. I did, I tell them. “I think it’ll probably blow the roof off the building.” They grin at each other.

seven methods, Lee-Jones’ debut play which opens at the Royal Court Upstairs this week, has the velocity of a bullet train. Sparked into action by a Forbes tweet which references Kylie Jenner as the first “self-made billionaire,” anonymous Twitter activist-slash-university-student Cleo begins detailing the seven methods by which one might kill Kylie Jenner, watched on by her apprehensive childhood friend, Kara. It’s a wild, ambitious excavation of appropriation, activism, and complicity, with stylistic flashes of Clare Barron and Caryl Churchill whipping through the text.

“Shit starts to go down,” Lee-Jones says simply. “It’s seven methods in critique and dissection of the things attached to Kylie – whiteness, cultural appropriation, gender politics, race – and shit also hits the fan when Kara challenges Cleo’s behaviour, and her way of dealing with rage.” Bhatia embellishes further. “It’s a play about how society attempts to whip black women’s voices and autonomy out from underneath them.”

The sensation of reading the play is akin to checking Twitter as soon as you wake up – that inundation of information, image and voice, hammering down on a sluggish consciousness. Memes, emojis and abbreviations are all folded into the text – the deluge eventually warping and mutating in something far beyond either character’s control. “Putting the Internet onstage has been really interesting,” Bhatia says. “It’s a place where people that historically, politically, socially haven’t had a voice, can have a voice. There’s a cognitive dissonance between what we do on the Internet and what we do face-to-face, and so where do the consequences of our actions live? It can feel like a really private place, and we can overshare and then fail to consider the consequences of that.”

Lee-Jones nods. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is the concept of dual identities – or triple, or quadruple – and I’m really interested in what it means for women of colour, and in this case black women, to exist between two spaces, and what that does to your psychological framework.” She references reading Lorraine Hansberry’s essay ‘Twice Militant’, and about W.E.B Dubois’s theory of double-consciousness – the idea that an African-American in the early 20th century “ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” – “I’m really interested in that as a modern thing, and how with the Internet we can create a dual identity,” Lee-Jones says. “It’s about the exhaustion of duality, of having two identities existing in separate spheres. That’s the play.”

So how does one stage the Internet? “We have to understand what the world is doing to these two black women, both online and offline,” Bhatia explains. “They’re one and the same space. The Internet could never be a separate space, because these women aren’t on the Internet – they’re in the Internet. And at the end of the play, the consequences of their actions live through both spheres.” We talk a little more about Twitter, about the way black Twitter is often the first to start viral trends but is simultaneously undervalued and exploited – by non-black individuals, but also by corporations. Lee-Jones expands. “Take the lady who coined the phrase ‘eyebrows on fleek’ – she didn’t get any money and everyone else used it. Twitter is amazing – it’s a goldmine for creativity – but people never get their due pay. I’m really interested in black Twitter being used as part of the capitalist infrastructure.” Bhatia cuts in. “And that’s basically the Kardashians.” “Exactly,” Lee-Jones replies. “It was really important for me to trace where all the gifs were from. I was like, I need to do something.” As a result, every meme, reaction picture, and gif is cited in a quasi-bibliography at the end of the text.

I ask Bhatia about working on a (contextually more traditional) play, in a year that has seen her helm two of the most unconventional shows on London’s stages – My White Best Friend at The Bunker, and Dismantle This Room, also at the Court. My White Best Friend is a series of monologues and letters addressed to white people by writers of colour, curated by Bhatia and Rachel De-Lahay. Dismantle was an escape-room style social experiment which urged its participants to pull apart the British theatre industry’s existing power structures. Both confronted their audience’s complicity in arresting and unusual ways. “I don’t think I’m attracted to a traditional three act play,” Bhatia says. “Obviously some really extraordinary work has come out of them but at the same time – that’s not my canon. I want to make work on my own terms. There’s something in doing these shows which is about inheriting or not inheriting structures – why do we have to inherit structures in order to make stuff?” I assume the staging will be exceedingly conventional, then, I say. Probably an end-on, proscenium arch, red velvet seat type of show? “Hell no,” she laughs. “Absolutely not. Pros arch puts the audience in a place of comfort and safety, and that’s not right, particularly for this play. We’re very aware of who historically comes and sees theatre, and it’s totally fed into the staging. Pros arch is too easy. I’ve seen so much work that ignores the audience, and I find that really difficult.”

We talk more about the audiences that might come see the play. Lee-Jones directs me to the Nina Simone epigraph which frames the play, which she found on a live recording of Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black.’ “’Now, it is not addressed particularly to white people, though it does not put you down in any way: it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.’” “This play is about whiteness – not at its centre, whiteness is not onstage – but we can’t deny that that is the audience makeup of most of this country,” Bhatia says. “But Jaz hasn’t written the play for that demographic. And we’ve not made it for them. We’ve had so much support from this building in the development of this play but also – every person in our rehearsal room is a black or brown woman, so there’s no gaze in the room.” Lee-Jones nods in agreement. “And we live under so many gazes.”

I ask Lee-Jones how she hopes to make her audience feel. She considers the question for a moment. “There’s a great Audre Lorde quote about rage and anger, and how it’s used and transformed. I would love to empower people to feel like their rage and anger is magic. If this piece can stop someone questioning their rage, then that would be amazing.” Bhatia agrees. “We’ve talked a lot about who’s allowed to be angry. It’s not just about who gets to put work on anymore – it’s about what they’re allowed to say.”

seven methods of killing kylie jenner is on at the Royal Court Theatre from 4th-27th July 2019. More info and tickets here. My White Best Friend returns to Bunker Theatre in November 2019. More info and tickets here.

Advertisement


Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine