In 2015, Amandla Stenberg (now a social activist, but back then of Hunger Games fame) put out a video on Youtube called “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows: a crash discourse on black culture”. In the 4 minute video, Stenberg explains how privileged white society has been mining black culture for monetizable cool, while simultaneously discarding and shaming black bodies. The video garnered about 2 million views and is the thing that buoyed Stenberg when she called out Kylie Jenner for appropriating black American aesthetics while staying silent on rampant systematic violence perpetuated against black Americans. In this instance, 140 characters became the tool for a black female to both question and condemn whiteness and the way it destructively reproduces itself in our contemporary context. Jasmine Lee Johnson’slatest work is cut from that same cloth.
‘seven methods of killing kylie jenner’ is a play that centres around black female friendship through the entry point of the Twittersphere. Lee Johnson describes it as a “black, queer millennial bildungsroman with half its head in the Internet because that’s where a lot of us live half the time anyway”. In her words, “the play centres around two young womxn – Cleo and Kara – who’ve grown up together and have experienced all the exhilarating highs and vulnerable lows of what that means. One of those characters is Cleo aka INCOGNEGRO on the TL. When she starts a thread in response to Forbes’ tweet designating Kylie Jenner as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, shit starts to hit the fan”.
Her characters each navigate their own unique black identities while unpacking the ideas of cultural appropriation and violence perpetuated against black bodies in the online space. Here, Lee Johnson speaks a bit about her work.
Where did you grow up and what was being a teenager like for you?
I grew up in North London but spent a lot of time in South London because I went to college there. Being a teenager was full of many awkward moments for me. There’s a beautiful poem in the film Pariah where Alike describes the metamorphosis of a butterfly and draws parallels between a butterfly’s growth and that of a humans. There’s one line where she describes the butterfly almost choking on its own mucus before evolving. It felt a lot like that at times. Having said that, there were loads of beautiful moments and I’ve been tremendously supported by my family and friends my whole youth and I’m still very much on the journey of constant growth and evolution which – to quote another poet – George Herbert this time – involves a lot of “growing and groaning”.
What kind of art and culture inspired you when you were younger?
Everything. My familial heritage is Jamaican, so I grew up watching a lot of Oliver Samuels and The Real McCoy. It’s really influenced my sense of humour and style as a writer. I also loved sitcoms such as Girlfriends, The Parkers and My Wife and Kids. My dad’s a DJ so I grew up listening to every genre of music imaginable – that’s really had an impact on the necessity for musicality in my work. In the past year and a half, I’ve got super into jazz: Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Miles Davis. Writing-wise, I loved and continue to love bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee and Lorraine Hansberry among countless others.
How did you come up with the idea for seven methods of killing kylie jenner?
I think just through seeing Kylie’s lipkit advertised on social media and seeing the physical journey she’s gone on in the public eye paralleled with mine and other young black womxn’s experience of growing up in this world. The two ideas or experiences started to clash instantaneously and breed something interesting in me. Then the title came – it came before any of the play which might seem strange but is very much how my brain works.
The play centres around two female characters, whose different experiences and identities challenge the idea that blackness is a monolith. Can you explain the decision to focus on that kind of black female relationship through those characters?
It was less of a decision and more of a calling. Sometimes I feel like voices are trapped inside of me and those two characters definitely feel a part of that. There are so few contemporary representations of Black British womxnhood and when there are a lot of them either feel tickbox-y or inauthentic entirely. I was inspired by the young black womxn I grew up with who could never entirely be pinned down and neither should they be.
Influencer culture has undoubtedly affected the way people at large view themselves and their peers. What do you believe the effects of our digital world are on black womxn?
It’s a combination of exhilaration and exhaustion. The internet, particularly its sharing sites allow people who have been historically deprived of or denied of a voice an opportunity to speak on a platform which can be accessed by most people in the world – that’s the exhilarating part. But with free speech – and the veil of anonymity that the internet provides – can become [a] massive danger. Often a danger we don’t recognise as being fatal as we don’t consider it to be physical. In reality, various scientific studies cite both the long and short-term effects of internet use and particularly violent language and images on the brain. My first play ‘say her name’ came out of a fascination with the effects of videos of police brutality being circulated on the internet and social media. Are those videos helpful in bringing awareness or harmful in normalising images of black bodies being brutalised? That in tandem, with black womxn being the highest proportional group to be victims of hate crime on the internet, the digital world can indeed be a very terrifying place for black womxn. There are two sides to the coin though, for someone of my age who has almost always had access to the internet and the instantaneous information portal it provides it has been an invaluable educational tool. Everything I know about social justice – particularly black feminism and theories like intersectionality has at least started on the internet. It’s a double-edged sword.
Depictions of black girlhood/womanhood in theatre are minimal and often quite basic (when not done by black women). How did you nuance these depictions in your writing?
I think – now that I’m thinking about it – I have a no-bullshit rule. I try and be as savage as possible with drafts and particularly with this play I was supremely concerned with the authenticity of their voice because I think I had to be. I tried to be very strict with myself about if I believed this is how those two characters would speak while they were alone in one of their rooms. I know how I speak to my friends so it’s tapping into that which is not always as easy as I think it might be. I make scrapbooks for all of my projects so I just filled this book with images of things, tweets, words, pictures and paintings that felt connected to this world and these characters somehow. Oh and music. Music is everything.
Your character Cleo (@incognegro) uses language that is really theoretical. What kind of texts/figures were you drawing on to build that dialogue?
I didn’t consciously think about it to be honest. When I was a teenager, I started reading some bell hooks and listening to her interviews and became fascinated with how she tied in culture and art to social theory, so I think a lot of Cleo’s language reminds me of hers. I think there’s a particular panel discussion she did which the play feels doused in called: Are You Still A Slave?In the interview, she describes 12 Years A Slave is ‘sentimental claptrap’ and obviously Cleo has that line which is ‘classic white supremacist claptrap’ – I only made that link in rehearsal. I was really taken by her description of the film, because it’s a film I adore so much, and Steve McQueen is one of my favourite artists. That interview and her cultural criticisms in general ignited an interest in a character who makes really striking criticisms and indictments and doesn’t appear to give a fuck what anyone thinks of them. I think that’s how Cleo was born.
Why Kylie Jenner, specifically?
I’m not sure cerebrally why. But I think it’s to do with us being of similar ages and us – in a bizarre way – growing up together. I feel like I’ve seen my and her life go in parallel so I think instinctively that just felt like the right thing. I remember being a couple of months away from rehearsal and discovering that Kylie became a billionaire at 21, Saartjie Baartman was taken to England as a commodity at 21 and I’d written a character in Cleo who was in her final year of uni and was therefore also 21. Then I realised that on a guttural level I was interested in the triptych of these three women experiences and connecting the past and the present.
What has been the response of audiences to the play?
Varying – as always! The shocking thing for me is when some people have had visceral emotional reactions. Sitting in my front room all those early mornings and trying to dig for – or let some level of truth emerge to the surface – I almost completely numbed myself to some of the subject matter. It feels like I’ve been living with the womxn, themes and given circumstances for so long it’s quite hard to be objective.