By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
No one heading to The Shed, one of New York’s most experimental theaters, for a show called Misty probably expects to hear two hours of Johnny Mathis’ greatest hits. But the loud, rap-oriented pre-show music and the opening minutes of Arinze Kene’s East London-accented monologue about viruses, cells and a fight on the “night bus” may have some theatergoers frantically searching for an exit door to use before intermission.
So, here’s the good news. They likely won’t be leaving until the show’s dramatic conclusion two hours later—and neither will you. Kene ultimately proves to be one of the most charismatic (and, yes, physically buff) performers to grace a New York stage in years. And soon enough, the subject of his strange monologue will be revealed—one many of us can relate to—as will its overall part in this bracing play about artistic expectations and the freedom to tell the story you choose.
First seen at London’s Bush Theatre in 2018 (and then quickly moved to the West End), Kene’s seemingly autobiographical work uses a unique mixture of poetry, prose, music (very little of it is overly loud) and spectacular visual effects—including a whole lot of orange balloons—to make its salient points. It is figuratively, and even, at times, literally, a tricky balancing act that Kene and his director, Omer Elerian, pull off with considerable aplomb.
The monologue, which does get frequently interrupted, concerns itself with the gentrification of East London, which has forced the area’s artistic community to seek lodgings elsewhere and small businesses to make way for pretentious cafes. Worse yet, its lifelong inhabitants (the cells) are being replaced by hipsters in dress shoes and trendy togs (the viruses), who have little regard for those who have called the area home.
Implicit in this story is that the “old-timers” are primarily black, most notably the protagonist of the monologue (revealed to be a friend of Kene’s) who gets into the aforementioned altercation on the bus, which leads to disastrous consequences for both parties. The story is not just being told to alert us to the unfairness of gentrification, but to the racist attitudes that prevail in London (and, obviously, elsewhere).
But it’s not just in the fictional tale where racism rears its ugly head. Kene’s desire to tell this particular story enrages his best friends, Raymond and Donna (ably played by Liam Godwin and Nadine Lee, who are the show’s outstanding onstage musicians), who ultimately threaten to end their relationship with Kene over his insistence on writing a “n…er” play—aka, a work that focuses on black trauma and the city’s black underclass. It also displeases his older sister (alternately played by child actresses Ifeoluwa Adedeniyi and Braxton Paul), his girlfriend “Dimples” (briefly “played” by Kene in a brilliant back-and-forth sequence), a now-successful artist . . . and almost everyone else in his orbit.
Kene does get encouragement from his New York producer (voiced offstage), but it’s clear he cares nothing about Kene’s artistic ambition and only wants a work that he believes will appeal to white audiences and bring in the bucks. Unsurprisingly, his response, and those of Kene’s friends, cause Kene to question whether he’s being a “sellout” in offering this particular tale to the masses.
You will need to—and want to—wait until the show’s extraordinary conclusion to get the answer. And you may want to get your tickets now, since given the show’s relatively short run, Misty may well sell out.
Misty. Through April 2 at The Shed’s Griffin Theatre (545 West 30th Street, in the Hudson Yards complex, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues) until April 2. www.theshed.org
Photos: Maria Baranova