Sunday, 6 October 2013

Theatre review: Black Jesus

"I rode into town on an ass. YO MAMA'S ASS!" Actually no, Black Jesus isn't an extended version of that Family Guy cutaway gag, but Anders Lustgarten's return to the Finborough after a shaky outing at the Royal Court. Black Jesus is the nickname given to Gabriel Chibamu (Paapa Essiedu,) a particularly brutal footsoldier in Robert Mugabe's regime, so called because he got to pass judgement on people's fates. The play takes place in 2015, and Gabriel's exactly where he feels he belongs, in prison. Eunice (The EnsembleTM's Debbie Korley) works for the Truth and Justice Commission, an organisation she knows full well has been set up primarily so that it looks to the outside world as if Zimbabwe is doing something to confront its past.

But Eunice and her boss Rob (Alexander Gatehouse) believe they can use it to uncover the truth for real, and Gabriel could be a key figure. Visiting him in prison, Eunice wants to see beyond the sins of the man carrying out atrocities, to the guilt of those who ordered them.

Lustgarten's play conveys a volatile environment where the kidnapping, rape and torture may have officially ended, but the democratically-elected (thanks to the votes of a lot of dead people, and twice as many police as the country actually has) government wants to make sure any truth and reconciliation going on is lip-service only. The arrival of minister Moyo (a sinisterly over-friendly Cyril Nri) on the scene signals that Eunice is getting a bit too close to the truth.

I'm not sure what it is about Black Jesus that had trouble holding my attention but during some of the one-on-one scenes that make it up my mind definitely did wander. It's certainly not through lack of an important enough subject, and at least as the play goes on, the palpable tension between Essiedu and Korley's characters brought me right into the action; it just took a while to get there.

Maybe it's the play's structure of speedy two-hander scenes that means it took a while for me to warm to it. Or maybe the problem really is that however well performed, it's not a play that offers any surprises. In any case David Mercatali's production builds up steam and I found myself liking Black Jesus more by the end than I did in its early scenes.

Black Jesus by Anders Lustgarten is booking until the 26th of October at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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