Culture critic Frankie Rhodes reviews Little Baby Jesus, performed as part of the REP’s Foundry Festival
I must admit, when I heard that the play I would be reviewing at the REP was comprised of three monologues, I had some reservations, expecting perhaps something stripped-back. However, when I walked in to the theatre to be met with three young actors, clad in school uniform and surveying the crowd, I knew I was about to witness something that was unlike any play I’d seen before.
Kehinde, Rugrat and Joanne are three teenagers growing up in Birmingham, each with their own set of trials and tribulations. Kehinde is rendered smitten by mixed-race girlfriends, a fact that causes him to yearn for a perceived superior level of “whiteness” that he does not possess. Rugrat is the class clown, eagerly telling tales of school fights and camaraderie, but with an underlying sense of shame and lack of belonging that seems to haunt him. Thirdly, Joanne is angry- with everyone.
Through the rotating monologues of this unconventional trio, we gain insight into their various experiences- their families, relationships and the inescapable issues of race that pervade it all. Not only are the audience immersed in the performance taking place on stage, but are also able to visualise the vivid images created through the narratives of the actors. I am reminded of a similar sensation when reading a book and being able to create one’s own unique world based on the plot constructed. Through combining live action and story-telling, ‘Little Baby Jesus’ invites you into three highly captivating worlds, so that you feel as if you are part of them, celebrating and suffering along with them.
One of the most creditable elements of the play, I thought, was its realness. When dealing with content about race, all too often material is toned down in order to avoid offence, or risk being too radical. However, this production was fully engaged with its social message, depicting issues such as racial prejudice and discrimination as a very real part of these adolescent lives. Alongside its heavier themes, the production used humour, subject-specific jargon and even snippets of grime music to create a sense of culture.
To return to the character of Joanne, I felt that Adaya Henry delivered a performance that was staggering in its emotional poignance. This was a character so isolated within society, deprived of family support and yet maintaining a fearless, strong-willed attitude. It was only when you watched her witness the narratives of the other characters, with such an expression of dull sadness, that you realised how much she had been forced to endure, at only fifteen years old. This was a sadness that could also be felt underneath Rugrat’s jokes and Kehinde’s tales of heartbreak, but I felt it most strongly with Joanne.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this play is all doom and gloom- I was laughing out loud on frequent occasions. More than anything, I was simply fascinated to be brought into a world that I had never seen showcased on stage before. Which leads me to question- why have I never seen a play like this before? Why aren’t there more plays like this?
I would highly recommend ‘Little Baby Jesus’ to anyone who is tired of seeing the same old (and mostly white) faces on stage and wants to be entertained and moved by three very talented actors.