We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Some stories are eternal—evergreen, we call them in news—others capture a moment in time. Finally making its U.S. premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (after a COVID delay), seven methods of killing kylie jenner is the latter—a play that bills the internet as its third character in a two-character story. At face value you could say it’s about Twitter and trolls, but that would be selling Jasmine Lee-Jones’ writing and understanding of the world short. In reality, seven methods of killing kylie jenner, a British play produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre, tackles appropriation, Black womanhood, queerness, colorism, and best friendship.
It is not, however, about Kylie Jenner or any part of the Kardashian regime. Written by Lee-Jones in 2019, the play responds to Forbes’ declaration that Jenner became a “self-made” billionaire earlier that year (“about as self made as my bed,” Cleo, played by Leanne Henlon, deadpans). It recalls that much of Jenner’s personal wealth stems from appropriation of Black women’s features—who can forget 2015’s lip plumping Kylie Jenner Challenge—and puts the spotlight on a young Black woman. Cleo, played passionately by Henlon, does what many do when reading appalling headlines—she takes to Twitter to share her rage, creating a thread of the ways in which she believes the famous-for-being-famous celebrity deserves to face retribution for appropriating Black culture and beauty.
The play is set on a mostly empty stage with a smaller platform at the front and is surrounded by the audience on three of its four sides. It would be stark except for the amoeba-like blob—the internet?—that hangs above and sometimes glows a brilliant neon. Made out of what appears to be ropes of various thickness, with twinkling lights scattered throughout, the shape, which looks like something out of the Matrix sequels, adds a level of gravitas to the theater.
For a play about the internet, it might come as a shock that there are no screens, especially since screens have become quite commonplace on stage these days. Instead, the characters—Cleo is soon joined by her friend Kara (Tia Bannon)—act out the Twitter replies, hashtags, and gifs. For anyone even moderately versed in the online world, it’s a marvel to behold. (Although between their quick remarks, acronyms, and thick British accents, you might find yourself wishing for subtitles.)
Over the course of 90 minutes, the play shifts between Cleo and Kara’s bickering and Henlon and Bannon embodying internet culture under the shape’s bright, changing lights. In the moments when the internet takes over, the talents of lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, sound designer Elena Peña, and movement director Delphine Gaborit dazzle. You’re transported to another place that certainly isn’t a young woman’s bedroom or a black box theater. There are so many dance elements in seven methods of killing kylie jenner that I can’t help but describe it as beautiful to watch. Bannon moves ethereally across the stage all backbends and gyrating hips and smooth jumps. The choreography shared between the two friends is enchanting—a clear demonstration of how movement can tell a story as well as words.
But while these Twitterverse scenes offer a too-real glimpse at the inhumanity spewed by internet trolls, the story’s foundation lies at the heart of Cleo and Kara’s friendship. From the moment Kara appears in Cleo’s room—late at night and uninvited—the two are clearly annoyed with one another. The actors exude a feeling so relatable it almost makes you worry your best friend is upset with you even as you grow more upset with her while watching.
Friends since primary school, Kara, who is light skinned, and Cleo, who is dark skinned, have been through a lot. At one point, Cleo confesses that she believes her darker complexion is the reason she’s been considered the least attractive of the two. Cleo talks about her features—the shape of her lips, the shape of her body—as attributes that got her teased, bullied, sexually sneered at, and romantically overlooked. (A far cry from the compliments and copying of Jenner’s artificially plumped lips.)
Kara is queer, but like many of us, didn’t always know or understand that part of herself. The two of them joke about Kara’s slutty phase, an era marked by her sleeping with cisgender men. But there is pain there for both women: “I never consented to being someone’s light-skinned fantasy,” Kara yells at Cleo. But the question—is it better to be wanted or unwanted for the way you look?—is left unanswered.
As Cleo concludes the seven ways she’d like to see Jenner suffer, much the way Black people, but especially women, have suffered at the hands of White people, the online comments intensify and some of Cleo’s homophobic tweets resurface. Retweet, retweet, retweet. The pent-up anger between the two explodes. It’s a fight that anyone with a best friend has lived through and wishes they hadn’t.
As is the nature of relationships, we let each other down and hurt one another. We’re abandoned by our people, and we abandon them too. So how does a friendship survive and move forward?
I’ll let Cleo and Kara answer that for you. But it’s not all doom and gloom. From early in their bickering and throughout, Lee-Jones finds the humor with support from Milli Bhatia’s direction. Together, the playwright and director have worked on seven methods of killing kylie jenner since its 2019 inception, and their work fits together beautifully, like a well-oiled universe.
seven methods of killing kylie jenner, written by Jasmine Lee-Jones, directed by Milli Bhatia, and produced by Royal Court Theatre, has been extended and now runs through March 5 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. woollymammoth.net. $20–$62.
A special Black Out performance, for an all-Black-identifying audience, has been scheduled for March 3.