Where do you belong when you’re British but your roots are African? This is the conundrum of Belong, Bola Agbaje's fourth Royal Court production (you may recall Off The Endz with So Solid's Ashley Walters in 2010). Belong is commissioned for the Tiata Fahodzi theatre company, which explores the experiences of Africans living in Britain.
Taking us on the journey to unpick this puzzle is ambitious politician Kayode (Lucian Msamati). In the opening scene, he’s slumped on a sofa, a mess of takeaways and empty booze bottles surrounding him, the signs of a depressed man. Indeed, he’s just lost the local election, because, he says, "my crime was being a Nigerian". In need of a break, he returns to Nigeria only to become entangled in a different political nightmare, facing the wrath of a mighty chief and the resentment of his countrymen who think he’s too European to be Nigerian. Kayode’s dual nationality brings its troubles certainly but ultimately, the playwright suggests it’s integrity and not race or nationality that count in life.
Belonging takes on a cultural significance too, with Rita (Noma Dumezweni), who is black but unlike her politician husband has no immediate family connections or loyalty to Nigeria. She doesn’t get his country or family and they don’t get her. She and Mama (Pamela Nomvete), the in-law, don’t get on – Rita scorns her ‘black-magic mumbo jumbo’ and Mama chastises Rita for not giving her grandchildren. This is presented at its strongest through comedy. Friend Fola (Jocelyn Jee Esien), is hilarious as the blithely unaware bull-in-a-china-shop, as effervescent as Rita is downtrodden. When she nags at Rita for not doing her duty as a wife and tidying up the place it’s funny, but it also hints at the important point of two cultures' different views on women.
When things get serious however, Belong struggles to convince. It’s somehow hard to believe in Rita and Kayode’s relationship really hitting the rocks; perhaps there’s a lacking in chemistry here. Then Msamati plays the part of weary politician well, but we crave to see the glimpse of power and charisma that would make us believe he is or once was, a great politician.
Nevermind. There’s enough humour and drama to make this an entertaining and at times thought provoking 90 minutes. We also spotted the actress who plays Amira in Eastenders in the audience, happily chatting away about it afterwards, a sound endorsement from someone whose had her fair share of intense story lines and dramatic plots.
Belong is at the Jerwoood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court until 26 May. Tickets: £20 (except Mondays, tickets: £10)