Black Jesus

Kings Cross Theatre, May 11

BLACK JESUS Elijah Williams as Black Jesus IMG_8679- by Nick McKinlay

Elijah Williams as Gabriel Chibamu or Black Jesus. Photo: Nick McKinlay

In presenting the Australian premiere of Black Jesus by UK playwright, bAKEHOUSE Theatre company gives us a glimpse into a world that few of us know about a great deal about and one that is rarely portrayed on our stages.

Black Jesus is set in Zimbabwe in 2015. Robert Mugabe’s government has fallen and a new Truth and Justice Commission has been established to investigate the horrific crimes committed during his regime.

A young woman called Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill) is called up to question a prisoner called Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) about atrocities he is alleged to have committed as one of the most notorious members of Mugabe’s youth militia, the Green Bombers.

Gabriel is known as the Black Jesus because, as he says: “I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and I now I take it for myself. I am Black Jesus. I do not crawl.”

The new Zimbabwe government is keeping an eye on Eunice’s investigation through Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono), a smooth-talking political operator who has known her since she was a child. Then there’s Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin) a white lawyer working with Eunice and with whom she has had a brief affair. He wants to support her but as soon as the threats start, he is quickly out of there.

Black Jesus evokes a dark world of violence, corruption and buried secrets where nothing is clear cut; everyone shares some form of guilt and is a victim at the same time.

Produced by John Harrison, co-artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre, Suzanne Millar directs a taut, powerful production. With a simple but striking set – an African tree painted on the wall with branches overhead (set design by Millar and Harrison) – Millar uses the slightly awkward space (two banks of seating on either side of a flat stage) extremely well. The use of a drummer (Alex Jalloh) helps build atmosphere and tension.

Millar has assembled an impressive cast. As Eunice, Jombwe-Cotterill looks small and fragile but allies that with a quiet steeliness. She is frequently extremely still, which gives her an understated strength and resonant presence, and meets Gabriel’s ferocious energy with a cool, hard stare. As Gabriel, Williams exudes an intimidating, explosive rage that feels genuinely threatening. Together, the game of cat-and-mouse they play keeps you tense.

Though Eunice’s relationship with Rob is not particularly well developed, Crellin is very convincing in the role, while Nkono conveys the danger lurking just beneath Moyo’s ebullient joviality.

Running an intense 75-minutes, Black Jesus raises questions about societies trying to recover after brutal regimes and sends you home, intrigued to find out more about the complexity of life in Zimbabwe. Well worth a look.

Black Jesus plays at the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel until May 21. Bookings:

His Mother’s Voice

ATYP Studio, May 4

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Justin Fleming’s new play His Mother’s Voice is a fascinating, absorbing play that combines sweeping politics with a powerful human drama.

Set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, it tells the story of a virtuoso pianist Qian Liu (Isaiah Powell as a child and Harry Tseng as an adult) whose mother Yang Jia (Renee Lim) teaches him to play the piano at a time when it was considered “the most dangerous of all Western instruments” and when Western music was banned.

Even when Liu’s father (John Gomez Goodway) is murdered and their piano is destroyed by Chinese apparatchiks, she finds a way to keep up her son’s lessons, despite the danger of severe punishment as a counter-revolutionary.

Eventually, Liu defects – with his mother’s blessing – while visiting Australia for an international piano competition, accompanied by his wife, an Australian woman working in Shanghai as a translator (Dannielle Jackson), and his father-in-law (Michael Gooley) who is a diplomat.

Fleming’s play resonates with passionate arguments about music and politics. Mao’s Communist Party will only sanction Chinese music; Yang Jia believes that Chinese and Western music complement each other and should be equally respected.

There are times when the play becomes a bit overtly didactic, particularly in the debates between Liu and his father-in-law, but overall it is beautifully written, capturing both the epic nature of the political background and the intimate personal relationships. The emotional stakes feel high and very real.

His exploration of the Chinese embrace of contradiction in a touching encounter when Yang Jia is interrogated in prison, and an amusing scene when Chinese officials negotiate Liu’s return is particularly well evoked.

Suzanne Millar directs the play for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company with great clarity on a simple set, which she co-designed with John Harrison and uses very cleverly.

Performed with great commitment by a cast of 12 (10 of them from Asian backgrounds), Renee Lim shines as Yang Jia, quietly capturing her strength, courage, idealism, intelligence and deep love for her son in a radiant, moving performance.

His Mother’s Voice plays at the ATYP Studio until May 17. Bookings: 9270 2400