“And what is the Nigerian dream?”
An original commission by British/African theatre company Tiata Fahodzi, the Royal Court upstairs now plays host to Bola Agbaje’s Belong. In this play that moves between London and Nigeria, Agbaje takes on an ambitious amount of subject matter: the diverse political cultures of the two countries, the differing experiences of first- and second-generation Black British people, whether notions of cultural identity can transcend nationality and race, the corruption endemic in so much of Nigerian bureaucracy, all in a swift 90 minutes, with new Artistic Director of the Tricycle Indhu Rubasingham taking on directorial duties.
Disillusioned at his defeat in a general election campaign in Croydon, Kayode has retreated under the duvet to his sofa, much to the chagrin of his wife Rita. Craving some respite and motherly comfort, he books a trip back to Nigeria, the place of his birth, where he finds his place in the familial home usurped by Kunle, a bright young boy that Mama has taken under her wing and who is being groomed for great political things. But politics in Nigeria is a whole different kettle of egusi soup and as Kayode sees how Kunle’s bold statements have to go hand-in-hand with placating the crooked Chief Olowolaye, he sees the opportunity for a second bite at achieving political success.
Tiata Fahodzi’s own Artistic Director Lucian Msamati shines as Kayode, running away from the perceived snub of his defeat in the UK to find another world where superficially at least, he fits in better. Agbaje only hints at the reasons for the failure of his campaign and this was a shame as Kayode’s miscalculations in appealing to a Black British audience felt like an area ripe with potential and there’s little sense of him learning from these mistakes. But from his eating habits to the way he debates, his doling out of money to every beggar he meets, it is clear that he’s something of a stranger in Nigeria too, though he jumps at the opportunity to make himself feel better and mend his frustrated political ambition. Msamati plays this internal conflict beautifully, the nagging sense of unease never far away, especially when he first puts on native dress, and exploded perfectly in the final dénouement with his selfishness exposed.
There was an initial bit of a double-take on my part at Kayode’s arrival back in Nigeria as the age difference between Msamati and Pamela Nomvete’s colourfully larger-than-life Mama does not seem at all like that of mother and son, but it is to Nomvete’s credit that she soon makes us forget that and folds us into the almost-suffocating embrace of the palatial Nigerian homestead and the weight of her frustrated parental expectations. Ashley Zhangazha’s street-boy-done-good is persuasively played, the shiny idealism of Kunle tarnished by the realities of operating within the system, and Richard Pepple captures the danger of the corrupt Chief, his overly teeth-baring smile a thing of perfectly calibrated terror.
Rubasingham allows a great expansiveness to the characterisation of urban Nigeria and Nigerians here, a cultural world away in so many respects with customs and behaviours that may well seem surprising to many. She is also successful is evoking the cacophonous din of a bustling street market as Kayode tries stumping to the traders, an all-too-brief reminder of the reality of much of Nigerian life. Personally though, I enjoyed the scenes back in England more with Kayode’s unsuspecting wife Rita shooting the breeze with friend Fola, and not just because Noma Dumezweni is fast becoming an actress I really appreciate. Jocelyn Jee Esien’s Fola is a delight to watch, sharply dismissively funny and a teeth-kissing devotee of the motherland as she tries to induce British Nigerians to return there, but her debates with Dumezweni’s defiantly British Rita really illuminate this difficult question of home, of identity, of whether a mixed heritage means some people feel they can never really belong anywhere.
There are no easy answers to such questions, nor does Agbaje seek to provide any here, but I can’t help but feel she errs a little too far on the other side of the pendulum with the abruptness of the ending. I’m not one of those people who need resolution to every plot strand to be satisfied but so much is left carefully poised up in the air as we reach the tumultuous conclusion, it was hard not to feel just a little disappointed that this was where the ride stopped. Still, there’s much to enjoy and learn in Belong which makes it worth the effort to get to see.