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Black Lover returns to the stage

Cameron Rhodes (Garfield Todd) and Simbarashe Matshe (Steady)

Black Lover by  Stanley Makuwe

Auckland Theatre Company

ASB Waterfront Theatre

September 3 – 13

As part their Back on the Boards series of plays the Auckland Theatre Company will remount the highly acclaimed play Black Lover by Stanley Makuwe, the premiere season of which sold out  during the 2020 Auckland Arts Festival but was cut short by the global pandemic.

This is my review of Black Lover at the time.

The colonial history of Africa has many parallels to that of New Zealand in relation to land, governance and human rights and a new play, Black Lover by  Stanley Makuwe highlights these aspects and the tragic history of Zimbabwe and the way it evolved. Central to the country’s history and to the play is  New Zealander  Sir Garfield Todd.

He was born in Invercargill, emigrated to Southern Rhodesia in 1934 as a  missionary and ran a Mission school where one of his pupils was Robert Mugabe.

He was a member of  the colonial parliament and became  Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia in 1953 but because of his liberal views was forced out of parliament .

Out of power, he became increasingly critical of white minority rule and was an outspoken opponent of Ian Smith’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom. Todd applied for an exit visa to lead a teach-in at the University of Edinburgh  on the inequities of white rule. The Rhodesian government banned his emigration, placing him under house arrest.

It is at this point that Black Lovers imagines an encounter between Todd (Cameron Rhodes) with his black family cook, Steady (Simbarashe Matshe).

At one point Todd reads from the speech which he was to deliver about the plight of the black population in Rhodesia, a speech his daughter, Judith would be delivering shortly in Edinburgh. This is one of the few polemical speeches in the play although there is some intense dialogues between the two men including an enraged outburst by Steady about white oppression and savagery.

Much of the time the inequalities between white and black are expressed in simple, personal exchanges and events. There is Steady’s discomfort at being asked to drink tea and eat cake with Todd as an equal, an event which more amusing than political.

The play also touches on the ingrained subservient nature of the relationship between white and black. Even between between Todd and his servant there is an uneasiness to their relationship and the idea of a black having access to cake is seen by Steady as a violation of the codes of apartheid.

Their conversations also touch on the role of women, religion, God and repentance with  Steady stating that he knows that the church is  “The black man’s death trap”.,

Cameron Rhodes captures the character of Todd brilliantly, a man weary and worried, concerned for others rather than himself, wanting Steady to be an equal but never able to bridge the gap.

Matshe as Steady is able to convey the internal conflicts between submitting to the apartheid state and aspiring to a better life and self-determination.

Stanley Makuwe provides  conversations  ranging from the simple to the raw and emotional  in which the political and the personal are threaded together creating a play which is sensitive  and revealing  of human relationships as well as the dangers of social and political inequality.

The play opens with the mingled sounds of classical music playing on the radio and the sounds of Africa in the air alluding to the mix of the two cultures of European and African.   But for much of the play it is the sounds of gunfire and explosions which enclose and threaten the two  men.

At just over an hour this is a superbly crafted play, rich and concise in its dialogues, ideas and emotional engagement. It is a play which allows us to reflect on a history which we have known and observed, at  distance but now resonates with contemporary  relevance.

Back on the Boards also features a new work, 48 Nights on Hope Street, a direct and exciting response to this time from a diverse company of young writers, actors and musicians. ATC will also remount of the award winning Still Life With Chickens by D.F. Mamea, which is tour de force of a work garnering rave reviews both here and Australia.  

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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