The Black Rep has opened a charming production of Soyinka's play, "The Trials of Brother Jero". This is certainly a very minor work by this very major playwright, but it stands as a rare modern example of a most ancient genre.
In a small Yaruba fishing village we meet Brother Jeroboam, a professional Christian "prophet". Preaching is his business—and it's a very competitive business. Brother Jero has jealously staked out his "turf" on a prime location on the beach, since he has no other "church". He lives in a squalid wooden shack nearby, but he is ambitious. He would love to have people call him "the Immaculate Jero". He yearns to grow his congregation, and he knows just how to do it—by giving prophecies that people really want to hear. "You'll be rich!" "You'll get promoted!" "You'll live to be eighty!" (Well, they won't know if that doesn't come true, will they?)
But Brother Jero has two problems: he has no money and he has a great weakness for pretty women.
One day a determined woman sets up camp in front of Jero's door. This is Amope who has come to collect the ?1/8/9 that Jero owes her for the beautiful cape she made for him. She will park herself there until he pays her. Amope's husband is the long-suffering Chume; the shrewish Amope is Chume's cross to bear. Throughout the play Chume begs Brother Jero to grant him permission to take the simple joy of beating his wife.
There is a great deal of very primitive physical humor here: Brother Jero ogling a lovely girl swimmer; Jero trying to avoid his creditor-nemesis; Chume chasing his wife round and about the stage; Chume (with a machete) chasing Jero when he thinks the prophet has seduced his wife. At one point Jero and Chume frenziedly pray for God to relieve their sufferings at the hands of the "daughters of Eve"; (here, delightfully, the repeated cries of "Eve" take on the sound of the comic braying of asses.)
This is clearly a satire—very like Moliere's "Tartuffe" in theme: the self-righteous moralist merely out for the money. (We note that Jeroboam, Biblically, was the rebel king who set up the golden calves for his people to worship.) This play might have come from the pen of an archaic Aristophanes. It is also very like that medieval "mystery" play about Noah and his Wife—where she chases him around beating him with a slap-stick. It is so like Punch and Judy.
But this little play is awash in quite beautiful dance and music and ravishing African rhythms. There is African song with gorgeous harmonies. At one moment, in a frenzy of prayer, there is a shrill ululation—the most thrilling sound in the world. All of this music and dance is so exquisitely done. And it so beautifully supports the feeling of stylization—the feeling that this is an ancient folk tale.
Ron Himes plays Jero (and he also directs the play). Himes is always a strong performer and he gets all the laughs, but there's still a little touch of dignity left. The role of Brother Jero really needs a gifted physical comic who can throw dignity to the winds and let goofiness reign. (I can see Richard Pryor in the role.)
A. C. Smith, as Chume, almost steals the show. Such total commitment, such energy, such vast eyes! And Velda Austin gives us a memorable, sassy Amope.
Underlying all the action, all the dance, is the beautiful hand-drumming of Arthur Moore—at times gentle, subtle; at times fiercely intense.
The lovely simple set and lighting—palms, a shack, a fence, a sky—is by James Burwinkle. The excellent choreography is by Linda Kelly. Beautiful vocal arrangement is by Jennifer Kelly. Costumes are by Marissa Perry; she gives the women colorful, hip-gracing African dress.
"The Trials of Brother Jero" continues at the Black Rep through April 27.