Since making a striking impact with her award-winning 2007 play Gone Too Far!, much is expected of every Bola Agbaje project. Belong doesn’t disappoint.
An exploratory tale of identity, politics, corruption and acceptance, it stands astride continents with one foot in England and one in Nigeria as it tells the story of a failed British MP who returns to his mother and his African roots to rest and recover. Except that once back home his political instincts are piqued once more.
Agbaje deftly handles seemingly every viewpoint in the relationship between Nigeria and the UK, from MP Kayode who cannot find full acceptance in either of his ‘homes’, through his British wife whose Nigerian heritage is entirely incidental to her, to his ‘adopted’ Nigerian brother who views Kayode’s Western political view as an affront to Nigeria’s ability to solve its own problems..
Agbaje’s characters are big, bold creations. Pamela Nomvete as Kayode’s mother is a force of nature every time she sweeps into a room, a whirlwind dressed in pink. Jocelyn Jee Esien brings out all the comedy in the interfering friend Fola, set delightfully against the dry wit of Noma Dumezwani’s Rita.
Big and bold is so often synonymous with stereotypical or broad, but don’t be fooled, there are many subtleties to be discovered, particularly in Lucian Msamati’s Kayode. The Artistic Director of Tiata Fahodzi, which co-produces Belong with the Royal Court, is often the quietest stage presence but at the same time the most enthralling. His portrayal of an educated man desperate for acceptance, for that illusive sense of belonging, is mesmerising. His assimilation, adoption of language, speech patterns, clothing, is both intriguing and depressing as he alters himself to fit the surroundings.
Sometimes it is the simplest act that highlights the cultural differences. Even before it is elaborated on, the sight of him eating with a fork while mother and brother tuck in naturally with fingers speaks volumes of his separation from their world. His answer to its problems is to Westernise it; a home where he both blends in and can live the life he loves.
Ben Stones’s clean, clinical set makes the transition between the UK and Nigeria a simple one, with just the slide of a wall, while new Tricycle theatre Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham’s unfussy direction helps draw memorable performances from the fine ensemble cast.
Though the play’s denouement might not be full of hope for the future of Nigeria, Agbaje’s own future continues to look bright.