Black Jesus – The difficulties in Zimbabwe reach our protected shores. (Theatre Review)
bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, 29 Apil – 21 May
King Cross Theatre, You can grab your tickets here
Image credit: Nick McKinlay
Watching Black Jesus, one is struck by how rarely we see stories from Africa on our Sydney stages – and how few of even them are written by African writers.
The people of the West (us) know very well that the Africans will fail in transforming their societies. We respond to this awareness in one of two ways. We either move toward a hard right perspective; clamping down on our borders, quoting scriptures the poor you will always have with you, protecting our way of life and letting Africans solve their own problems. The other side, play at being the distressed soul, calling for a free opening of our borders we know will never happen, lamenting the dead on the shores of Europe and crying in our coffee as a response to guilt. Both these arguments are smoke screens, neither are at cause. The real reason Africans will not succeed in transforming their societies is because North Americans, Western Europeans and their affiliates of which we are one, won’t let them. We are preventing them. We know it was the European intervention in Libya which threw that country into chaos we know it was the U.S. attack on Iraq which created the situation of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in Central African Republic is not just an explosion of ethnic hatred to which we can cluck our tongues and shake our heads; France and China are fighting for the control of oil resources through their proxies.
But the worst current example of what the West do to Africa is happening in The Congo. In 2001 a UN investigation into the illegal exploitation of its natural resources found that its internal conflicts are mainly about access to, control of, and trade in five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. So beneath the façade of ethnic warfare we see the workings of global capitalism. The Congo can’t unite itself. It exists as a multitude of territories ruled by warlords controlling their patch of land with vicious armies. Each of these warlords has business links to a foreign company exploiting the mineral wealth in the region. Many of these minerals are used in high-tech products such as laptops and cell phones. The warlords maintain control by attacks that include the drugging and exploitation of children.
Zimbabwe is one of the many examples of a country using extreme measures to separate itself from white greed’s endless dominance. However, human rights abuses can never be tolerated – at least not when perpetuated by non-whites. When Anders Lustgarten puts words in the mouths of his Zimbabwean characters, he seeks recognition from his predominately white audience that Africans can autonomize; That they can be creative and responsive about government, and that much of their troubles spring from the West; That this perpetual negative sampling of African woes does them harm. All this is true, and Lustgarten’s heart is definitely in the right place, but the error here is that we already know these things. This is why Africa above all continents, endures such tight control exerted by the West. We are all sitting comfortable with the fruits of the spoils of Africa. We all know our consumerist life style is at cause here, and the image of the hungry, desperate, struggling black man is a mask behind which we hide, not a misunderstanding we exploit. This is also why voices from Africa are all but absent from our stages.
Here lies the magic of Black Jesus currently playing at The Kings Cross Theatre. It is not so much the words of Anders Lustgarten that astound us, but the performances of the mostly African cast. It is an all too rare thrill to bear witness to the steely gaze of Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill), the frustrated anguish of Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) and the wily political manoeuvres of Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono) book ended by the drums of Alex Jalloh (riveting to watch) and the white faced betrayal of liberal values in Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin – who is a wonderfully displaced white). The importance of witnessing this cast in all their dramatic glory can’t be overestimated. Black Jesus itself means well, even if it smacks of the white liberal, but the glory is in the performances and in Suzanne Millar’s direction. Fight, flight and fear scenes are performed with vibrant movement, and the dramatic tension is kept high due to the power of Williams and Jombwe-Cotterill’s stage chemistry. Watching the intensity between the two is thrilling as Williams embodies his externally and Jombwe-Cotterill holds hers inside, like her nerve endings are smouldering. We see performances like this far too rarely on Australian stages and much credit goes to bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company for bringing this exciting drama to our city.
But perhaps most chilling of all is the clever Endurance Moyo, brought to hair-raising life by Dorian Nkono. Nkono throbs with the power we white folk tremble in our beds over – the clever African, the wily African, the political African, the mobilised motivated African. Nkono in many ways is the villain of the piece, despite his behaviours being remarkably similar to any white politician you can point to. He has many favours in his gift, but nothing is for free. Nkono gives a striking performance, discombobulating, and worldly wise. If the West keep rewarding the Gabriel Chibamu’s of Africa, it is because they fear the rising of the Endurance Moyo’s. Zimbabwe is the perfect African nation to mirror white fear back at itself. And it is this fear, above all else, that is brought to chilling life in Black Jesus.
Black Jesus is an important play that is well performed, short and to the point. Housed in the Kings Cross Theatre it is an electrifying night at the theatre that will remain with you for many nights after.