Little Baby Jesus is the miraculous sort of theatre that plucks us completely out of ourselves, pries apart our ribs and speaks so directly into our hearts, that by the time it ends we are left disoriented and awestruck. It comes to us poignantly during Black History Month and will, I have no doubt, secure its place as a classic.
This is not just a coming of age play. It is the story of three teenagers on the razor sharp cusp of adulthood in London’s inner city. This is not a gentle or patient world. It is a place of squared shoulders, clenched jaws, never falling to the bottom of the food chain and more than that; it is unfalteringly, about being young and black.
Arinzé Kene’s script and Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s direction are soul stirring. They create a world of hardship, class politics, racism and misogynoir. Characters navigate the concentric identities of being both young and a minority in an inherently prejudiced society, each relying upon humour, aggression or tenderness to survive. Their transition from childhood to adulthood is a baptism of fire. They are each damaged, and immeasurably strong as they learn the true cost of their choices.
The stage is a small circle. Designer Tara Usher’s ground is playground asphalt, hovering above is a large halo of light. Our three protagonists dance, tumble and stride around telling their interlocking stories through music, poetry and sermon. They address each other and the audience with equal familiarity. In the halo’s light, through mother tongues, invoking old faiths and new, their stories are elevated from anecdotes of youth into profound spiritual rites of passage.
The cast are flawless. For anyone who went to school in London their experiences, personalities and slang are delightfully nostalgic. Khai Shaw’s Rugrat is the excitable class clown with a heart of gold who longs for social acceptance. Rachel Nwokoro plays Joanne, a young woman who already carries so much anger and has learned too young that to love is to be hurt. Anyebe Godwin plays Kehinde, a young man who already has an acute understanding of the racial tension that exists in society and behind his closed door.
The first half of the play is hilarious. The cast recapture the intense emotions and frustrations of being a teenager. We each identify our younger selves within these characters in uniforms (again created by Usher) with rolled up skirts, shortened ties, and shirts littered with hand written messages. But slowly, unfurling like a deadly flower, the stories are underscored with deeper meaning.
Kene shows us that to be black is to suffer many silent defeats in white-dominated society. It is to have your name warped and spat back into your ear like a shard of broken glass, to grind your native language off of your tongue, to resent every feature that makes you ‘other’. It is to inherit an old sadness from your ancestors. Black communities and in particular black women have suffered in this regime of institutional racism the most. As Little Baby Jesus reaches its emotional climax we feel the inexplicable weight of it all – but this is not a mourning song. It is a complex reflection of the black experience, a preservation of personal histories, and the opportunity to celebrate a rarely seen demographic on stage.
At the play’s end we leap to our feet with thunderous ovation. This story is urgent and honest, lingering long after the lights go down. After, we scatter back into the night, dragging the sharp London air into our lungs and feeling the reassuring stone of the city beneath our feet, determined and changed.
Little Baby Jesus is playing the Orange Tree Theatre until 16 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Orange Tree Theatre website.