Review: Black Jesus (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

bakehouseVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 29 – May 21, 2016
Playwright: Anders Lustgarten
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Jarrod Crellin, Belinda Jombwe, Dorian Nkono, Elijah Williams
Image by Nick McKinlay

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
Parochialism is a problem that many of us can fall into, no matter where we live. We are citizens of the world but rarely acknowledge that fact, choosing instead to identify with narrow constructs of identity, based on immediate interests and geographic restrictions. When we talk about Australian stories, it is easy to make mistaken assumptions about what our collective thinks we are. In choosing to stage Anders Lustgarten’s Black Jesus, the audience’s perspective is broadened. The characters and situations are oceans away, but we cannot divorce ourselves from their concerns. We have to realise that our roots extend to unexpected places, and stories from foreign lands are relevant not only for our migrant histories, but also for the plain fact that humanity is ultimately unifying, even if man insists on perpetual combat.

After every war, people find themselves picking up the pieces as the dust begins to settle. Black Jesus is about investigations into abuses by the Mugabe government after its fictional fall in Zimbabwe. Gabriel is a young man accused of many atrocities while in a position of leadership, and Eunice is appointed to determine the truths of Gabriel’s story in the midst of confusion and ambiguities. The play explores the vulnerability of innocence in times of trouble, to question the culpability of individuals when fighting to survive. They are all grey areas, even if the bloodshed and brutality is irrefutable.

Lustgarten’s writing is confronting, vivid and often powerful, but plot details are not always clearly defined. Even though it is unnecessary to have a thorough understanding of every context in order to appreciate all its main themes and ideas, it is a challenge not to feel distracted by moments of confusion while trying to follow its narrative. Direction by Suzanne Millar is energetic and very animated. The production is passionately expressive in its portrayal of every personality and their intentions, fuelled by the enchanting live drums of Alex Jalloh.

Leading man Elijah Williams impresses with his immense agility in both physical and emotional terms. It is a vigorous but measured performance, magnetic in its allure, and disarming in its authenticity. Williams’ ability to engross with an extravagant sense of theatricality while keeping us convinced of the psychological accuracy that he depicts, is the highlight of the show and delightfully thrilling to witness. Equally dramatic is Dorian Nkono, full of colour in his interpretation of the unscrupulous government official Moyo. Humorous and deeply charming, Nkono’s confident and creative approach to his work is remarkable, and very entertaining indeed.

As we spend our days fretting over Sydney property prices and closing times of our watering holes, Black Jesus arrives to wake us to a bigger reality. We are grateful to be spared calamities that other nations have to endure, but cannot help but recognise the connections we share as a species regardless of borders and circumstances. Like many tragedies we hear about in our advanced state of information plenitude, we can only respond with despair and helplessness. We may not yet have answers to world peace, but ridding ourselves of ignorance is the crucial starting point.