Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 16 November 2019
Wunderkind actor-writer Arinzé Kene (how can one man be so talented?) knocks it out of the park with the revival of his 2011 play Little Baby Jesus. Directed by JMK Award 2019 winner Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, this play reinforces the Orange Tree Theatre’s already solid reputation as a home for groundbreaking new writing.
Three actors portray three main and multiple secondary characters to tell simple (until they turn horribly dark) stories of every day school life for black teenagers growing up too fast. Rachel Nwokoro, Anyebe Godwin and Khai Shaw bring a captivating onstage charisma and physicality, exactly capturing the lanky-electric shock energy of adolescent bodies not yet fully in control of their own power.
Nwokoro is exceptional, bringing moments of real empathy to her gobby, mardy Joanna. Godwin’s multiple characters show the full range of his maturity and versatility, while Shaw’s well-pitched child-clown Rugrat grabs the attention, but his moments of quite watchfulness suggest he’s capable of much more.
Three future stars, but the production well utilises the Orange Tree’s in the round space to make the audience a fourth character. Most of the reviews for this play (mainly written, as is this one, by a white – or in my case mostly white – critic) seem to shy away from acknowledging that the characters are black – the phrase “inner city” or “urban” used frequently, but not “black”.
But blackness and the black experience is the very DNA of this play. The opening scene, in which Godwin rejects his earlier immature desire to be mixed race to praise God for “this beautiful black skin” (leading to some of the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard in a theatre) gives way to a stunning monologue on the body politics of race, moving effortlessly from the different types of textured hair hair to the mass rapes of female slaves in pre-Civil War America.
It’s incredibly well-observed, and in this celebration (or sometimes lamentation) of the experience of blackness, the audience – certainly more “diverse” than you’d normally see on a Tuesday night in Richmond – found themselves, and found their own voices. The play doesn’t involve audience interaction, except a little onstage pre-show heckling, but the fourth wall feels entirely absent. Indeed one of the funniest moments in a very, very funny play involved Nwokoro responding in-character to a particularly enthusiastic audience member.
The play moves on a dime, flipping between broad physical comedy, quotidian epics where a trapped carpet becomes the stuff of legend, and incredibly dark… well I’d say tragedy, but at points it’s closer to horror. After a hilarious first half directed with great verve and humour, the second half moves into more serious and contemplative mode. The play’s epilogue, where the teens urge the audience to be true to themselves with a series of greeting card-esque platitudes, strikes the only bum note in the production. It’s trite and acts as an unnecessary full stop in a production that relishes in its lack of neat endings. In life, sometimes the best stories are messy and unresolved, and real.
Little Baby Jesus is on until 16 November https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on