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BLACK JESUS – Finborough Theatre, London.

black jesus, finborough theatreFollowing a slew of political dramas that look to the past or murky present, Anders Lustgarten has taken an intriguing approach by examining a possible future in his latest work, although – audiences be warned – it is a piece that necessitates a certain level of engagement with Zimbabwe’s history. In fact, the most common reaction to Black Jesus, premiering at the Finborough, may well be a quick trip to Wikipedia to fill in the blanks. Sadly, the emotional content makes far less of an impression than the political.

Set in 2015, the play gives us a promising scenario: crusading human-rights activist Eunice Ncube, representing the new Truth and Justice Commission, is questioning imprisoned militia leader Gabriel Chibamu about the atrocities he committed during Mugabe’s regime in the hope of identifying those who gave the orders, now likely ensconced in a new-look government. That Chibamu committed monstrous acts is beyond doubt; that he is the real monster in this scenario is open to interpretation.

The face of the apparently reformed government is Minister Moyo, played to chilling perfection by Cyril Nri. Moyo’s boisterous geniality overlays a clinical ruthlessness, which peeks through in elegantly veiled threats, and his well-crafted rhetoric concerning the philosophy of revolution and strategic use of information is as seductive as it is terrifying. “Knowledge is an explosive device,” he proclaims to Eunice, as he advises her to find a truth that suits their needs.

Black Jesus is most effective in such exchanges, where truth and justice are slippery concepts and each revelation muddies our vision further. In the early scenes, Paapa Essiedu’s Chibamu is both beguiling believer and a dangerous coiled spring, shrewd eyes shifting as he searches for an advantage, while Eunice’s moral superiority is interestingly complicated by her affair with her white married boss (Alexander Gatehouse, charismatic in his brief appearance, despite a distractingly erroneous accent).

black jesus, finborough theatreUnfortunately, Lustgarten prioritises didacticism over theatrical ambiguity and a substantial study of humanity; thus, the interracial subplot fizzles out, a late twist gives us a too-neat climax, and, perhaps most egregiously, Chibamu is softened to a wounded puppy in order to satisfy a simplistic message. Lustgarten’s writing can be dazzling, mixing evocative, lyrical analogies with sly wit, but it also tends to distance us from the visceral experience of the characters.

As with his If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, which appeared at the Royal Court earlier this year, we are left with the feeling of a potential epic stuffed into 75 minutes, and it’s the emotional engagement that is squeezed out, despite the best efforts of the cast, particularly Debbie Korley as Eunice. Nicholas Wright’s A Human Being Died That Night at the Hampstead dealt with similar material in a far more taut, effective drama.

There are timely questions here about post-revolutionary society, national identity, the trap of power and how to address the sins of the past, and David Mercatali’s crisp direction offers a dynamic framework for these ideas in another strong Finborough production. However, Lustgarten appears to suffer from the same affliction as his protagonist: he understands it’s important to engage with such information, but he hasn’t yet found the best way of doing so in this medium.

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Reviewed 04/10/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

1st– 26th Oct 2013
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10.

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