With Robert Whitehead’s wisdom and Lebo Toko’s tenacity, it’s a powerful theatrical cocktail

An intriguing play titled The Man Jesus, coupled  with a dynamic duo, director Robert Whitehead and actor Lebo Toko, and you have a potent theatrical mix. DIANE DE BEER speaks to the director and actor pair during rehearsals of the play now running at Joburg’s Market Theatre:

The Man Jesus photographer Brett Rubin
Robert Whitehead (director) and Lebo Toko (actor) discussing The Man Jesus

“It’s a story of possibility,” says Robert Whitehead, about the playThe Man Jesus written by Matthew Hurt, a South African born Irish playwright.

The playwright, the son of a friend of his, asked Whitehead whether he would like to do the play – as an actor. He felt that this was not the part for him to play – and knew he wanted a black actor to tell the story – but he wanted to direct.

And when he talks about the play, he has very specific ideas, understanding that with 12 different characters involved, you didn’t need much more than the story to play out.

He also needed a very special actor to commit to the role. A solo play with Lebo Toko as his pick (last seen in James Ngcobo’s Raisin in the Sun), Whitehead acknowledges that as a trained actor/singer/dancer, (what is commonly known as the triple threat), he wouldneed all those skills to get through this one.

But Toko is up for the challenge. Speaking to them during the early days of rehearsal, there was still a sense of nervousness – but also excitement at pulling this one off.

It’s the first time back at The Market for Whitehead in 12 years and quite a while since he has directed.

Yet with a clear head, he knows that he won’t make use of any electronics or even props. “It’s going to be the actor and a set,” he says simply. It’s all about the text, which was nominated for the Irish Times Best New Play in 2013, and looks back 2 000 years to witness key moments in the life of ‘the man Jesus’, through the eyes of the people who knew him.

“It’s conjecture,” says Whitehead about the thought provoking and challenging script dealing with the man who had an enormous and profound impact on the history of mankind. The Man Jesus traces his life from before his birth to after his death through some dozen characters, both male and female, with whom he came into contact.

Was he a man with magical powers?  Was he a prophet with miraculous skill sets? Or did a few Jews start to realise something else? “That, of course, is entirely up to you.  People should understand that in spite of the title, or because of it, this is a work of imagination.  There was no ‘The New Testament’, ‘The Gospels’, ‘The Early Church’ or any such thing which makes what eventually came into being, so fascinating,” says Whitehead as he points to Christianity.

The Man Jesus starring Lebo Toko directed by Robert Whitehead photographer Brett Rubin (002).jpg

He is intrigued by the times when all of this was playing out specifically because of what followed – and that’s what the play deals with. Everyone was running around trying to figure out what was happening in this “cruelly conquered land”, he notes. And they had to try to make sense of this man called Jesus – and make it work politically.

And for the director and actor the challenge is to latch onto the immediacy of the story and not get stuck in the “sacredness”. “That only came later,” explains Whitehead. This deals with the now of then.

The man they explore was a guy who did weird and freaky things. “How much is mythology? We are telling a story that is expressing the inexpressible.”

For Toko accepting this part is the bravest thing he has ever done in his young life as an actor. “I know I can act, but this is something else,” he says with a shake of his head. And already, as the solo performer, he understands that this is a very lonely world.

But he also gets that what he is experiencing in this rehearsal period is a great learning experience. “I know that the day I leave this classroom, I will leave with something bigger than I understood when starting out.”

Talking about the writing, Whitehead remarks that the text is quite formal and very English. “We have left everyone who they are and where they are, but have changed some words that work better here where we are.”

And, he points out, the obvious and yet … “ours is not a blond Jesus!”

I leave them working the process, still finding their way into the play but also knowing that with Whitehead’s wisdom and Toko’s tenacity, their combined talent will pull this one off.

“It’s all about baby steps,” says Whitehead as he turns to his actor. That’s the exciting thing about this one – and they know that.

It’s not an easy story to tell, but for this theatrical duo, that’s not what they were looking for. They want people to listen and learn, and leave the theatre with something.

That’s what they plan to do.

PICTURES: Brett Rubin

The Man Jesus plays at the Market Theatre’s Barney Simon until Sunday 5 November.