Sitting in the front row no more than a metre away from the actors, and transported to Zimbabwe in 2015, issues which might ordinarily feel worlds away become immediate and pressing in the Finborough Theatre’s tense and absorbing Black Jesus.
The brilliance of Black Jesus lies in the fact that, despite the highly specific setting and history upon which it hinges, audiences are never left behind, nor patronised for how much they may or may not already know. The play imagines Zimbabwe’s near future, where Eunice Ncube (played by Debbie Korley) of the Truth and Justice Commission interviews the notorious Gabriel Chibanu (Paapa Essiedu), who played a large part in violently enforcing the old regime. And though the play teeters close at times to being more discussion than drama, we come away having not only learnt more about this country and the many tangled problems it faces, but equally the difficulty of its moving forward when the past pulls so strongly upon its people.
The play is close and tense right from the start, thanks to Max Dorey’s detailed and earthy set, with its ominously spinning ceiling fan and chicken wire ceiling. It is no accident that our sense of confinement in this tiny theatre parallels that of Gabriel’s, as we are forced to hear to the gruesome details of his past. Eunice and Gabriel are immediately locked in a silent negotiation over a plant and a water bottle, this almost Pinter-esque exchange perfectly foregrounding the power shifts which we see take place over the play’s course.
Debbie Korley captivates right from the beginning as Eunice: her regal diplomacy constantly threatened by her fear and increasing empathy for Gabriel, despite his shocking crimes. Director David Mercatali again proves his aptitude for encouraging the most robust and high-occitane performances from his female leads, with Black Jesus coming just off the back of his work with Gemma Whelan on Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle – a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The supporting cast, particularly Cyril Nri as government minister, Moyo, bolster Korley’s strong performance. One of the play’s most enjoyable scenes comes when Moyo pays Eunice a visit, and his insistence on intertwining stories of knowing her as a childhood with the contentious issue of her interviews with Chibanu, highlighted the inseparability of politics and the personal, the present and the past – Eunice’s anger at this interference quietly simmering throughout. Equally, it is this kind of deft and precise writing which is Lustgarten’s biggest strength in Black Jesus: he creates a multilayered piece which itself refuses to compartmentalise the web of issues concerning Zimbabwe, and it is this refusal which constantly frustrates his characters, offering the actors meaty roles to sink their teeth into.
One of the most interesting features of the play is its attempt to highlight the grey areas of each character: each of their capacities to be both good and bad simultaneously, never wholly one or the other. In the midst of this, however, Paapa Essiedu’s portrayal of Gabriel Chibanu occasionally lost this three-dimensionality, lacking vocal dexterity and offering a somewhat faux intensity, rather than the quiet, focused assurance the role demands. Where Korley had made the decision with Eunice to wrestle to bury her vulnerabilities – this constant struggle making for nerve-wracking watching lest the cracks show – Essiedu tended more towards showing, capitalising on the character’s moments of vulnerability in order to ensure we saw Chibanu’s good side. However, with the strength of the writing, this compensation felt unnecessary, and the performance might have benefited from a touch more subtlety.
There was no doubt that audiences left the play having been riveted and with plenty to think about, though I did wonder whether simply thinking is enough, with Black Jesus leaving me wondering where the join between my own world and theirs really lay, and in turn what the piece really asked of me other than spectatorship or sympathy. These are small quibbles, however, and Black Jesus certainly succeeds in its aim of transporting us to another, well-drawn, world and examining it closely through this highly-crafted microcosm.
Black Jesus is playing at Finborough Theatre until 26 October. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.