REVIEW: Black Lover (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Anuja Mitra

[A Kiwi Hero in Zimbabwe]

When Sir Garfield Todd denounced racial injustice in 1950s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he was fiercely hated by supporters of white minority rule. Among the pejoratives they called him was “black lover”. Stanley Makuwe’s Black Lover is an illuminating glimpse into an overlooked chapter of history: a remarkable chapter which saw the Invercargill-born Todd become Prime Minister of Rhodesia and advocate for equality between Zimbabweans and white settlers. As tensions escalated and Todd’s unpopularity grew, he remained firm in his conviction that everyone, regardless of race, deserved the chance “to win a place in the sun.”

Makuwe’s play brings Todd’s life to light through the warm glow of a sitting room. Situated within the intimate space of Q’s Loft, this domestic setting makes us flies on the wall to the rapport between Todd and Steady, his (fictional) black cook. With the 1960s War for Independence raging on, Todd has been driven into house arrest and forbidden “any contact with blacks”. Yet Steady refuses to leave, both unerringly loyal to Todd and afraid of the violence he just witnessed outside: The shooting of a black man he knew, not long after the killing of the man’s father. The script repeatedly circles back to this brutal murder and wider family tragedy, using it to capture the cost of Rhodesia’s bloody struggle to preserve white supremacy. 

Largely, though, Black Lover centres on the humorous and essentially human exchange between Todd and Steady. Cameron Rhodes’s calm, understated performance as Todd complements Simbarashe Matshe’s upbeat Steady, making their conversations about God, family and Todd’s sweet tooth consistently entertaining. We might say it is the New Zealander in Todd that causes him to soldier on despite the odds. “Never mind what they think,” he tells his wife and daughter on the phone, “they have to hear what we think.” Both have left to deliver his speech to the Queen, urging England to institute power sharing between Zimbabweans and white settlers. The play does not attempt to be an illustration of Todd’s whole career, but gives us enough of the man that we can appreciate his determination to unite a divided society; and fear that too many will be harmed in the process.

Hails of bullets outside disrupt the men’s conversation, and Sean Lynch’s effective sound design makes this jarring each time. The noise is a harsh reminder of the weight of the situation, returning, like the memory of the murder, to shatter their precarious sense of safety — and for Steady, his precarious sense of equality. While he shares cake with Todd, he knows that servants in other households are beaten. The faithful, funny servant to a brave and benevolent employer, Steady’s personality might feel familiar: He deeply respects and relies on Todd, who reminds him that he is “a man, a proud, African man.” One might think of the ‘white saviour’ trope that has attracted criticism in Western media, where a white person’s stand against racial oppression is portrayed in a manner that discounts the perspective of the group being oppressed (often reducing them to supporting acts, incapable of resistance on their own). Black Lover addresses this through Steady’s climactic outburst, where he voices his anger at the mistreatment of his people, accusing Todd of playing “saviour”. His rage feels necessary; working to locate him outside of a stereotype and signify Makuwe’s understanding of the difficulties plaguing any connection, however positive, between a white man and a black man in turbulent times. I would have been curious to see the consequences of Steady’s anger on the men’s relationship before the play swerved into its final shocking moments. That said, these moments pack the intended emotional punch, bringing it to a poignant close.  

Directed by Roy Ward, Black Lover is an impactful look at race, humanity and courage in the face of division. It is also a reminder that New Zealanders have long been making history, even far away from our shores.

Black Lover is presented by Auckland Theatre Company as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and plays at Q Loft until 4 April, 2020. 

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