Australia has a growing African community both through migrant and refugee programs. This is a fairly recent phenomenon and people from countries including DR Congo, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Uganda have recently made Australia their home.
The ruthless pain and destruction of people under the siege of revolution, post white colonial rule, followed by the imagined collapse of the Mugabe Government and then the methods of investigation, intervention and recovery presents a platform for insights into the stories of our new communities within Australia.
The beat of Zimbabwe pulsated in the dynamic production of Anders Lustgarten powerful and authoritative play Black Jesus at the Sydney based indie theatre company The Bakehouse Theatre, located in the colourful King’s Cross in Sydney (KXT).
At the Australian premiere of Black Jesus, a play igniting community conversations, I spoke with the vibrantly animated Producer John Harrison and met the imaginative and meticulous Director Suzanne Millar.
Her fluent direction triumphantly conveyed her compassion for the fragility vulnerability and dichotomy of the human condition especially under threatening and excruciating circumstances.
Suzanne sealed her impeccable direction with the movements and sounds of Africa.
She choreographed synchronised dance like sequences allied to the dialogue and action of the play.
The conflict between the political potence of an unscrupulous black Minister Endurance Moyo, the battle wearied white government official Rob Palmer and the zealous search for certainty by Eunice Ncube is both provocative and disturbing.
Alex Jalloh on live drums communicated the anguish, fear, intensity and restrained optimism at the heart of the play.
He was able to feel the tempo and rhythm of the play and deliver the momentum and ethos of the premises to a very receptive audience.
I was to learn after the performance in a Q&A session that he lived in Sierra Leone and was a childhood friend of Elijah Williams also a member of the cast, playing Black Jesus.
Both had experienced first-hand the ravages of war torn Sierra Leone and their empathy for the context, characters and situations of the play resonated.
The play deals with the aftermath of revolution and the downfall of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, presently a new form of oppressive political control is implemented by the liberators.
The interrogation and impending trial of one of the most infamous perpetrators Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) poses a possible opportunity for redemption in the form of community justice.
The playwright has written a very strong and discerning black women Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill) as the central character. In her role on the Truth and Justice Committee she is the catalyst for a changed approach to the executors of heinous crimes against the people of Zimbabwe.
In her pre-trial interrogation she learns that Gabriel was recruited by the Green Bombers, a dangerous and violent youth militia set up as an arm of the government under the pretext of a strategy for employing aimless youth and also offering opportunities for tertiary education.
The sadistic methods of training developed an army of agitated youth, loyal and dedicated only to the deeply disturbed and dangerous Green Bombers. Unfortunately with consistent and cohesive indoctrination they became their only family.
They were coached, coerced and seduced into violent acts of torture and atrocious murders. Their innocence was pilfered and replaced with the immoral codes of vile and contemptuous conduct.
Eunice strategically designed a two prong tactic for Gabriel.
She wants to uncover the powerful initiators behind the orders and missions, the Green Bombers so diligently obeyed. Simultaneously she believes in human rights and seeks to give Gabriel the opportunity to unfold his part in the destructive process and so create a path for possible reconciliation.
She is frustrated and constantly obstructed in her quest by the white ambiguous, ambitious Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin) and the duplicitous, treacherous black Minister Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono).
“Truth or justice” is a theme explored in this thought provoking authentic drama. The characters are developed with a realism that is profoundly complex and enriching. Their response to the question of truth or justice is informed by their unique experiences, perspectives and personalities that field their past, present and future intentions and courses of action.
In notes from playwright Anders Lustgarten he writes;
“What makes Black Jesus important in my opinion is that unlike the vast majority of white fiction about non-white societies, it’s written from the inside rather than having a white protagonist explain everything to us.
And it doesn’t judge – everybody is guilty in some way, and everybody is innocent… I think kinking how things really are clears the way to knowing what we really can, and can’t, do about them.”
The performance by Elijah Williams is electrifying. His raw energy, towering physical presence and passionate characterisation crafts the troubled and conflicted personality of Gabriel Chibamu.
His agile movements and charismatic authority are testament to the force and magnitude of his professional theatre debut. This is a performance of theatrical significance and magic.
Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill’s discreet and thoughtful acting subtly aligned coherence to the play’s intention.
Dorian Nkono was referred to in the Q&A segment as “the company elder.” He assumed the sleek sly identity of a corrupt government official with the finesse of a seasoned performer.
He comfortably moved between controlling clever sinister banter and the quick witted humorous asides. His character’s obsession with power was cunningly conveyed.
Jarrod Crellin effortlessly assumed the South African accent and perceptively expressed the ambivalent nature of his character. His synthesis of corruption and tedium with both black and white regimes bore disillusion and resignation.
Suzanne Millar and John Harrison designed a minimalist and inventive set. Yvette Tziallas the Set Artist painted a white outlined trunk suggesting the lower branches of a baobab tree on the black wall.
The heavily patterned tree elegantly depicted the landscape and festooning the ceiling with collected bare tree branches added a vastness to the setting. The imagery innovatively connected with the language of the play.
The mission of the Bakehouse Theatre Company is collaboration, diversity and mentoring. This was honoured with the integrity of idealism and the practicality of application. It would be wonderful to think that other casting opportunities avail this very fine troupe of actors.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016