How Arinzé Kene Brought a Slice of London to NYC in MISTY
Arinzé Kene has been a household name in the London theatre community for over a decade. He has two Olivier nominations, one for his performance as Bob Marley in Get Up, Stand Up, and another for his genre-bending, tour-de-force, solo show Misty. He is respected for his raw tenacity as an artist and willingness to speak the truth, no matter how hard it might be for audiences to swallow. He’s also entertaining as hell.
In Misty, now playing at the Shed Theatre in NYC through April 2, Kene is making his U.S. stage debut. The show explores a gentrifying London through the lens of a writer trying to craft a play that would avoid the stereotypical problems found within quote-unquote Black plays (i.e. trauma porn) while still accurately portraying BIPOC realities.
The end result is a quasi-musical in which Kene co-composed nearly a dozen songs with Adrian MacLeod and Shiloh Coke. Directed by Omar Elerian, Misty follows Kene as a heightened version of himself, the playwright, as he tries to write about a young man who gets into a fight on the night bus and then spends the entire evening in various parts of East London trying to hide from the cops and his own personal demons.
As Kene plays himself and the characters he has created, a two-person band flanks the stage to slingshot the material into an almost concert-like atmosphere (read: there will be fog machines and strobe lights). Despite the multiple layers and heavy thematic material, Kene’s number one priority is fun. “The thing that comes to me naturally before I’m a writer is [that] I’m an entertainer,” he told me on Zoom.
He accomplishes that in a multitude of ways—whether it’s getting stuck inside a human-size orange balloon or dealing with a heard-but-never-seen megaproducer who just so happens to sound like the 44th President of the United States. The voice of Maya Angelou is Kene’s agent, who may or may not start an off-stage affair with the producer. There will be laughter.
Misty all began with the most dominant theme of the play. “I started writing the actual story about gentrification first. And then this other thing was happening in my life. As a writer, I was grappling with a lot of stuff...what would I be writing, and who gets to tell what story, and what's expected of you as an artist?” Fighting against the expectations of what others thought Kene should be writing, he folded that into the play.
This is where the aforementioned giant orange balloon comes in. “In the rehearsal process, we knew that the intellectual discussion was not going to give us what we needed…we went through phases where we were trying to find something to represent these anxieties and bits of resistance that writers feel.” First, it was a piece of mail—but people would want to know what’s inside it, so that didn’t work. Even once they landed on a balloon, it took Kene and Elerian a minute to decide it would be orange. Every other color had an association that didn’t work, i.e. black=depressing, yellow=happy, purple=Genie in Aladdin, etc. By the time Kene is on stage bouncing and rolling around, it doesn’t really matter what color, because it’s so clear what the (hilarious) metaphor is.
Later, at one point, Kene shouts at his producer: “I just wanna finish my shitty little story about my mate Lucas and about people like me, who don’t want wanna get displaced by Latte Sipping Yoga Addicts!” This line could apply to any writer living in NYC, too, they just don’t have a literal orange balloon trapping them.
That parallel is exactly what has struck audiences who have seen Misty, according to the playwright. People have told him they didn’t realize there are areas in London that are so similar to Brooklyn and Harlem. Few in NYC are aware that London has a similar problem with middle-class New Yorkers moving into historically rich, underserved, and racially diverse neighborhoods. “There’s these areas [in NYC] that literally resemble Hackney, Brixton, Peckham; exactly the same thing is happening and you could just put a mirror there.”
However, Kene says, the point of Misty is “not to make hipsters feel guilty.” The same applies to people buying properties in these neighborhoods, and it’s not to stir up some white guilt. “It’s actually to present what is happening in this in these parts of the world…[but] we’re in this world together.”
A lot of Misty comes from Kene’s own experience living in Hackney. There’s a line when he looks up at some shiny new buildings and says, “it does look nice, but I don’t like it.” He’ll be the first to tell you he enjoys the benefits: the cafes, the yoga studios, the new cinema. “But at the same time, I’ll go, ‘Ugh’ [groans], because there's also the bad shit about it, too.” (Who hasn’t felt that way about their own neighborhood?)
The “bad shit” is all the displacement and invisibility that longtime residents begin to feel when gentrification starts. It’s a seeping feeling that is best exemplified in the songs of Misty. While in London, Kene’s favorite song to perform was “Chase.” “You get to see so much of the city [as the character] is running through his neighborhood. It’s very visual…It feels like a playground.” He credits lighting designer Jackie Shemesh and video designer Daniel Denton for making it all come to life on stage.
This time around, however, his favorite is “Sleep Paralysis,” which was reworked in between stagings. “We don't have another moment in the show quite like it, it’s a very intimate song. Maybe it's just because it feels new, but I feel so connected to the audience whenever I sing that number.”
To make sure the show translated across the pond, Kene actually visited NYC beforehand to get a feel for the city. His itinerary included a decades-old diner in Bed-Stuy, the Malcolm Shabbaz Market in Harlem, and even Flushing. Almost immediately, he knew that locals coming to see Misty would know exactly what Kene was talking about—with a few jokes about his thick East London accent thrown in for good measure.
That’s probably why the reaction has been so positive. “One of my concerns with coming out here was no one knows me. Why are they going to buy a ticket to my show? You read the breakdown and it sounds weird.” And yet, even without references to other shows (Audiences won’t be able to say to their friends, “it’s like Avenue Q—but for a gentrifying London!,” there literally is nothing to compare it to), people are coming back for more.
When Kene and I chatted, there had been 6 preview performances, and someone had already gone back to see Misty for a third time. “That was happening when we did it in London,” he adds. “I think it’s just that kind of show and hopefully word of mouth continues. That’s the main thing: [I’m] overjoyed with welcome.”
Here’s hoping he’ll stick around for a while.
Misty is currently running through April 2. For more information and the tickets, click here.