Stanley Makuwe’s recent Auckland Theatre Company playwriting debut Black Lover is a landmark event — both for audiences in Tāmaki Makaurau to witness the storytelling skills of a local black playwright, and also, as a first for our flagship company.
It’s a well-written drama that follows the interactions between former Rhodesian Prime Minister, Garfield Todd and his loyal cook Steady. Hailing from Invercargill Todd was a church missionary at the Dadaya Mission in Southern Rhodesia and was elected to parliament in 1946. Seven years later, he became Prime Minister over a country with a small but powerful white minority and an increasingly dissatisfied larger black population. His liberal politics to extend the right to vote to all Zimbabweans resulted his house-arrest at the family ranch, Hokonui, in Zvishavane.
It is into this turbulent moment of a nation on its edge that Makuwe launches his story— and he does it with care and finesse. Veteran actor Cameron Rhodes plays the former Prime Minister magnificently with quiet and dignified resignation and brings a range of emotion to his character. He is well-matched by his younger, but equally passionate co-star Simbarashe Matshe, who plays the role of the family cook, Steady. The younger man’s portrait of the unwavering devoted employee is also accompanied by a resistance to accept complete authority — from issues on the divine to the bedroom — and this saves his character from becoming clichéd.
Under Roy Ward’s distilling direction the narrative is driven by a slow and steady drip of information that emphasizes the laudable traits of Todd; and only secondary to that, do we see the slow rise of Steady’s anger to boiling point.
When the climax does come – it seems a little too late. Nevertheless, it is necessary to shift the story from what could easily have become an ongoing narrative about white-saviour politics to an insight into the black man’s rebellion.
Set and costume designer Rachael Walker’s chosen colour palette with its hues of deep reds, golds, beiges and browns are thoughtful and well-chosen, beautifully complimenting Rachel Marlow’s lighting and Sean Lynch’s sound design. It’s impossible to fault the production values – but it does seem to have been a missed opportunity for local Zimbabwean or other black creatives to have been brought into assistant or secondment roles.
Black Lover is a powerful story told by a talented playwright. It opens a window into our historical relationship with Zimbabwe – and hopefully it’s a window that can continue to be opened wider, right here in Aotearoa.