Review: In ‘Misty,’ a Restless Artist Grapples With a Gentrifying City

There are many ways to tell a story. Freestyle, direct address and a varied assortment of orange balloons are just a few of the expressive means deployed in “Misty,” which opened on Thursday at the Shed. This multidisciplinary piece, by the British writer and performer Arinzé Kene, uses an array of sights and sounds to toy with the perceptions of the people it presumes are watching.

The onstage musicians, Liam Godwin (keys) and Nadine Lee (drums), criticize Kene’s opening rhymes, about a Black man who beats up a drunk passenger on the night bus. Will this be another play about, as Lee says, a “generic angry young Black man”? A story that meets the expectations of a mostly white audience and transforms Black trauma into a commodity? Maybe so, but it’s also a probing and restless self-portrait of the artist.

In the show that Kene says he’s writing, he plays a Londoner navigating an increasingly hostile city, likening its rhythms to the inner workings of a living creature. (“Misty” was commissioned by the Bush Theater in London, where, in 2018, it transferred to the West End.) Accompanied by live beats and with microphone in hand, he delivers spoken verse as the Black man: He leaves the drunk passenger behind, visits a lover and later discovers that his mother has locked him out of their home and he’s being pursued by the police.

The poetry-slam vibe of these scenes is regularly interrupted by Kene’s many critics: His older sister (played as a young girl by the child actor Braxton Paul at the performance I saw) hangs him out to dry over email. The play’s American producer (represented by an empty director’s chair and a lit cigarette resting in an ashtray) is voiced, hilariously, in snippets of speeches by President Barack Obama. “I feel like I’m outside myself, second-guessing what is expected of me,” Kene tells him.

Kene is a versatile artist, who comes across onstage as strikingly honest and vulnerable; “Misty” is as much about the challenges of his creative process as the outcome (a bit of clowning that finds Kene encased in a giant balloon is an apt visual metaphor). The production, from the director Omar Elerian, is beautifully atmospheric, propulsive and often a sensory feat. But “Misty” excels as an act of self-examination more than it coheres as a piece of narrative theater.

Audience comprehension may be strained, for example, by the time Kene clarifies that the man on the bus isn’t him, but a friend who inspired the show. It’s around the same time that Kene reverses the play’s central, and ultimately overworked, conceit, insisting that white gentrifiers, rather than Black men, are viruses infecting the city. (The police, however, remain antivirals.) Kene favors repetition, in his lyrics and broader thematic construction, a style that might benefit from a tighter running time (the show is two hours with an intermission).

There is a meta irony to bemoaning gentrification from inside this Hudson Yards theater, and to confronting white audiences with what they expect to see there. Even in interrogating the conundrum Kene faces as a Black artist, “Misty” narrowly addresses itself to white perspectives. It’s a trap that settings like this one make even harder to escape.

Through April 2 at the Shed, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours.

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