Theatre review: Black Jesus - Finborough Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Anders Lustgarten's powerful new play makes an arresting jump into the near-future. It's set in 2015 in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe where a Truth and Justice Commission has been instituted to investigate past atrocities. The main strand of the drama is a series of charged, uneasy encounters between Eunice Ncube, a young lawyer working for this outfit, and Gabriel Chibamu, a prisoner who was infamous as a member of the Green Bombers, a youth militia created by Mugabe to terrorise affiliates of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He was styled "Black Jesus", he reports, because he decided who would be saved and who would be condemned.

In David Mercatali's compelling, pressure-cooker production, Paapa Essiedu is excellent as Gabriel – a glowering, intimidatory and fiercely intelligent operator who shifts from a brooding defensiveness about his inner demons to a stricken recognition of how callously the regime brutalised and indoctrinated him into committing unspeakable crimes on its behalf and then left him to rot. As Eunice, Debbie Korley captures vividly the nervy but determined idealism of this scion of black privilege who has a secret that links her to Gabriel and suggests that her zeal for expiation is far from disinterested.

It was never clear to me why, even with Mugabe gone, a Zanu-PF administration would have countenanced a Truth Commission in the first place, given the horrors it was bound to unearth. But the play sharply dramatises how the Commission's "government-sponsored" independence is undermined by the government itself. After enduring unattributed physical harassment and ugly threats to his wife, Rob, Eunice's white boss (Alexander Gatehouse), is relieved to take up the offer of heading a new so-called Ministry of Reconciliation and Unity, though he must know, deep down, that it's designed to be a toothless diversionary front. Meanwhile the Commission itself comes under the control of Moyo, an ebulliently cynical government minister and an old friend of Eunice's family, whose transition from cackling avuncular bonhomie to unsmiling authoritarianism is given a brilliantly sinister edge by Cyril Nri.

This 85-minute play is, in some respects, underdeveloped. Eunice's jealous sexual attachment to her boss is handled with irritating sketchiness. The hopeful conclusion, envisaging a world of atonement through community service, feels rushed and rose-tinted. But, at its best, Black Jesus forces you the examine the complexities of motivation that make the division between right and wrong, guilt and innocence much less clear-cut than one would have thought in these post-traumatic situations and to ask in whose possibly sectarian interest the cathartic exorcising of the body politic is being sought.

To 26 October; 0844 847 1652