Where is home, really? Is it the country you were born in, or the country where you choose to make a life? Is there even such a thing as choice in the matter, when the colour of your skin means other people will always make that judgement for you? These are some of the central questions in Bola Agbaje’s bitingly funny but ultimately bleak new play.
Nigerian-born politician Kayode (Lucian Msamati) has thrown away his local election chances with a dig at his black (but British-born) opponent that is so barbed ‘they’re even talking about it on Loose Women’. Nudged by his outspoken friend Fola (Joycelyn Jee Esien) he decides to lick his wounds at home in Nigeria, where his ego, temper and naïveté disastrously combine as he is sucked into a political arena that is dangerously different from the one that he knows.
Belong has the rhythms of Africa coursing through it: from the characters’ occasional switches into their native language, to the sing-song of the speech and the buzz of the marketplace that threatens to overwhelm the Anglicised Kayode. One of strengths of the writing is that it feels so genuinely rooted in the experience of Africans in Britain (as a white northerner, some lines went over my head only to garner laughs of recognition from the audience) – but it also taps into universal themes. The conflicts of family and identity, of how you see yourself versus how others see you – anyone who has ever moved away from their hometown will recognise the awkwardness of Kayode’s homecoming, where every changed mannerism is seen as a slight on his upbringing.
Illuminating these themes, a solid cast does sterling work. Msamati is a convincing mix of bombast and principle as the returning son who allows himself to be seduced by the idea of being the ‘Nigerian Obama’, while Noma Dumezweni, so good recently in A Walk On Part, once again proves herself a compelling figure, as the wife frustrated and increasingly bewildered by his actions. Esien’s larger than life Fola gets a lot of the laughs, but is hampered slightly by her character being little more than a combination of clever, sassy lines; likewise Kayode’s mother, Pamela Nomvete brings a pleasing mix of warmth and steel, but at times comes across as the universal ‘bossy but loving mother’ trope. As her adopted son, Ashley Zhangaza brings youthful passion to his role as his ‘brother’s’ African reflection: scorning Kayode’s Anglicisation as anti-Nigerian, he too allows his idealism to blind him to the dark side of the African dream of progress. Richard Pepple’s corrupt politico Chief Olowolaye is given little to do but be menacing, but makes the most of an underwritten role.
At just over 90 minutes, and tightly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, the play skips ably between London and Nigeria, aided by Ben Stones’ elegant and versatile design, which subtly conjures the gloom of Britain versus the heat of Africa, even though most of the action takes place indoors. Its brevity is, perhaps, its main flaw – because while Agbaje has a great ear for dialogue (and her bang up-to-date references keep the piece feeling very topical), some of the characters felt thinly drawn, and it would have been good to see her dig a little deeper into the issues being explored. At times the play felt like it was skimming the surface of both worlds, without ever getting to the real truth of either. But when it worked, which it frequently did, it had a freshness and a vibrancy to it, and there were signs of a genuinely original voice at work.