Story: Brother Jeroboam, like many preachers near Lagos, Nigeria, prefers to minister to his faithful in a local fishing village down at the beach. In reality a con artist, he has a makeshift ministry there, where ostensibly he lives outdoors. Actually, he sleeps nightly in a nearby shack, trying mightily to ward off his major temptation, attractive women.
In order to keep his flock faithful to him, Brother Jero prefers to make sure that they never are quite satisfied, lest they feel they don’t need him anymore.
One of those folks is Chume, a government clerk who has been convinced by Jero that he owes his position to the preacher. Chume chafes under the verbal whip cracked by his domineering wife Amope, who unbeknownst to Chume happens to be Jero’s landlady.
When Amope threatens to evict Jero for delinquent rent, he concocts a scheme to permit Chume to beat his wife, something the clerk has longed to do but been forbidden by Brother Jero in order to keep him subservient to the preacher. At first Chume is jubilant when Jero grants him ‘permission,’ but soon realizes the preacher’s ulterior motives. Will Jero finally get his comeuppance?
Highlights: Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, who was the first African to win the Nobel Prize, has been a fixture in African theater for more than half a century. One of his earliest works, The Trials of Brother Jero is a slight piece that was first performed in 1960 and published in 1963.
It’s a gentle comedy that pokes fun at hypocrisy and religious charlatans in an easygoing, low-key style. The Black Rep is featuring the one-act comedy as the conclusion to its current season in generally entertaining fashion.
Other Info: One of the highlights of this production is getting to see accomplished stage veterans A.C. Smith, Velma Austin and Black Rep founding director Ron Himes perform together. The savvy trio offers up juicy little bits of interpretation for Soyinka’s comic souffle, with a youthful ensemble providing capable support in smaller roles.
Under Himes’ smoothly paced direction, the latter effectively demonstrate Linda Kennedy’s modest choreography in an opening segment and in segues between various scenes to the accompaniment of on-stage drummer Arthur Moore. Ladies in the chorus include Shaleya Anderson, Evann De-Bose, LaQuisha “BlaQue Pearl” and Jennifer Kelley, with assistance from young Isaiah Shavers as a boy villager.
Phillip Dixon, Matthew Galbreath and SirGabe Ryan Cunningham are the adult male members of the ensemble, with Dixon doubling as Brother Jero’s disapproving mentor, Old Prophet, and Galbreath appearing as an ambitious politician eager to listen to Brother Jero in return for the ‘prophet’s prayers.
Smith, Austin and Himes milk most of the humor from Soyinka’s lightweight piece as much with their gestures and facial expressions as with their dialogue.
Jim Burwinkel’s lighting nicely accentuates his subdued scenic design, which features a periodic night sky backdrop and Jero’s tiny abode, with plenty of pots, pans, blankets and other props courtesy of Kennedy cluttering Chume’s cumbersome bicycle. Marissa Perry adds an array of colorful costumes, with Brother Jero’s flamboyant garb contrasting directly with Chume’s drab uniform.
The Trials of Brother Jero is harmless diversion penned by one of Africa’s greatest playwrights in his youth, a pleasant enough way to wrap up The Black Rep’s first season in its new home at Harris-Stowe State University.
Play: The Trials of Brother Jero
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3101 Laclede
Dates: April 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27
Tickets: $35-$45; contact 534-3810 or theblackrep.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein