Black Lover Review
The set suggests red dust, and the soundscape, war. We are placed in a colonial front room. This is Rhodesia in 1965. Former-PM Garfield Todd, a NZ missionary, is on house-arrest, banned from having any contact with black Africans. His servant ‘Steady’ comes to cook for him, principally because he needs the money to feed his own family. The pull that’s created by and between these two characters carries a piece that is a study in micro-gesture and nuance. Tension in Black Lover is created by the relationship between Simbarashe Matshe and Cameron Rhodes, equally intense and familiar. The ease they have with each other enables us, as audience, to be immersed into the heart of the story: we believe in their bond, and in the power dynamic that shifts its weight between them. There’s a formality here too, which immediately positions each in a pre-set societal role. Matshe arcs his character across a spectrum of emotion, while Rhodes remains constant and almost unflappable. This counter-balance brings a gratifying richness. Subtle staging and soundscapes that use deliberate jarring to move the arc towards its turning points lets the two-hander unfold without fighting for attention. The space created between tragic and comedic moments along with masterful command of pace and pause by both actors means this is a tightly controlled piece of theatre that could risk being lost in the razzle-dazzle of festival frenzy. Of its audience it demands concentration, and in that it may have been challenging for some to absorb.
A festival should show us to ourselves. Of this, the 2020 offering has done a great job with Black Lover too holding up a mirror. Our region is a sanctuary to many with family ties to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, so this piece of theatre is an important part of the full festival canon here.
It would be a mistake to see this simply as an historical story. Many of its themes are very fresh. Power pulls between ‘Mr’ and ‘Boy’, white and black, master and servant still have a relevancy and we should continue to explore them in our collective pasts.
It plays a marvellous trick on the audience by pulling them in through positioning Matshe in a comedic role through his telling of an horrific event through the medium of fart jokes. This gives an excuse for the audience to let out a laugh of relief. We are made to feel comfortable, promised that no confrontation will take place. We are then wide-open and responsive, we trust the characters to look after us, to be nice to us. What follows in a volley of commentary on religion, politics, colonial rule, misplaced do-gooding. We have been wooed by friendly welcomes; the hard-hitting message gets us while our guard is down.
Costuming is carefully designed with both men in the uniform of the colonies, a more relaxed version of the uptight English suit. Master is buttoned to the neck and wrist; servant, looser, his sleeves rolled up. Master in polished leather lace-ups; servant in too-small sandals. Master in pressed pants; servant in pants too short in the leg. He, in a striped tie; he, in a striped apron. This attention to detail makes for a satisfying portrait.
As power shifts, the actors move their positioning from sitting on the floor, to the stool, the chair, to standing, to standing on the stool. Their hierarchy in the dynamic moving with them as they show the resilience, the vulnerability, the battle and the bond between them. A particularly poignant moment comes served up with that spoonful of sugary charm that helps soften a tough message. Servant, Steady, plays Queen Elizabeth II, complete with a cup of tea, while Todd delivers a speech he was meant to give in London. Steady’s summative remark: “You make a good house boy for the Queen Mr Todd”. This gag is loaded and also enables what comes next a way in, a way past any barriers the audience may have put up. In our laughter we are co-conspirators, and when the friction mounts between the two we are culpable witnesses.
Matshe meets some of Todd’s dialogue with laughter that segues into tears, and much of this play creates that in its audience. We are left struggling to understand the futility of what has happened, not just in Africa, but in many parts of the world. We are left feeling fragile, but in that wound perhaps new awareness and action can grow.
The play holds a balance too between the domestic and the universal. In pointing so decisively at one relationship and one moment, it can deliver complex messages about multi-facetted events. Here is a piece that uses its medium for more than just entertainment. Rather than running from it though, it’s important we witness it, face it, question it and use it to stimulate discussion.
The piece is peppered with references to the mark made by Todd on what is now Zimbabwe, and it certainly rewards further research. But rather than being a celebration of ‘a New Zealander who made a difference’ it is a challenge to us to look carefully at the world and ensure we stay alert to continuing an ongoing tide of change.