Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
WHAT if Jesus was a woman? And what if he was a black man?
These are questions that have been asked by many as they try to nail down the true identity of the son of God. As no one alive can testify to having seen the Messiah living and breathing, it is a question that few dare to answer.
However, there is a commonly held image that many happily identify as Jesus Christ. It is an image that you will find in most Zimbabwean homes. In almost every living room, hangs the image a man with long hair, a beard, and a slender, sombre face.
The same image can be found around the globe whether it is in paintings, sculptures, crucifixes or movies. According to Joan Taylor, a Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, that image is a far cry from a historically accurate depiction of Jesus.
She notes that both the Bible and the New Testament provide few sparse details about Jesus’s clothing but no description at all about his physical features. In the holy texts Jesus “walks, talks, heals, touches, drinks, eats, performs miracles, gets seized, spat on, beaten, whipped and crucified, but we do not have him visually described,” Taylor writes.
If there’s no accurate enough description of Jesus, who is to say that he was not black? And who is to say that African artistes, like their western counterparts stretching from Byzantine mosaic-makers to Renaissance painters and Hollywood directors, can also influence how the world looks at its saviour? This is what Nama award winning writer and actor Philani Nyoni has been trying to achieve with his play The Passions of Black Jesus, a production written and performed by him.
Its debut at Harare’s Theatre in the Park in Harare, the play and Nyoni’s performance got a standing ovation, suggesting that his work had struck a chord with the audience. A black and female Jesus is certainly something new, and Nyoni has expressed his desire to “kill God”. Or at least, God as we know him.
“The play is part of an experiment. There’s a need for us as Africans or people of African descent to start to have gods that work to our interests. It is basically a philosophical standpoint that says we must kill God and reinvent him to protect our interests.
“So the play does not exactly try to kill God but basically asks what if God was one of us? It brings the humanity in the character of Jesus. It’s basically looking at Jesus as the son of man and not the son of God. And in this instance as the daughter of God,” he told Sunday Life.
Despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting that the popular image of Jesus Christ is not accurate, some would probably cast disgusted looks at those that suggested this in their presence.
Those that suggest that the bearded, handsome Christ that’s revered the world over is a false image would probably be accused of blasphemy.
However, Nyoni has stuck to his guns, as he is determined to bring to the stage and screen another version of Jesus Christ. History, he believes, is on his side.
“Historically speaking there’s a vast amount of evidence suggesting that Jesus Christ might have been black. If you go to the Bible you’ll find phrases that describe him as a man who had the skin of brass and hair soft as wool which, you know, is someone like you and me. That’s a black person and not someone of Caucasian descent.
“However, because every society, besides Africa, seems to understand the need to have God to work towards their own advantage. The painter Michelangelo and others who worked during the time known as the Italian Renaissance had figured that Jesus was a white man so we have that image being perpetuated today as the image of Christ. So I’m saying why don’t we do the same and reinvent God to look like us, to fan our interests and to represent our interests,” he said.
Having had a successful debut in Harare, Nyoni’s next challenge is bringing his own version of Jesus to audiences in his home town.
However, before the black Jesus can come to the City of Kings, Nyoni said that he needed to take a six-week break as preparing for the show’s debut had taken a toll on him.
“One of the less appreciated parts of a performer is the athleticism. Shouting and gesturing intensely for an hour is not a mean feat. You need to be really fit. So I want to take six weeks off and concentrate on that play and try to develop it even further.
“The audience in Harare tried to kill me after that performance with a standing ovation. I was literally shocked at that reaction. Yes, I have a good play but I think I can make it excellent. So I want to take time off and work on it because I’ve got very wild ideas and expectations about this play. So I want to take time off and work on the play and it will come back around June I think and at that time I think Bulawayo will be the first place where I will showcase it,” he said.