The Tricycle Theater’s three-play series, “Not Black and White,” comes to a lively — if not particularly groundbreaking — end with Bola Agbaje’s agitprop take on the U.K.’s immigration system, “Detaining Justice.” While oppression, inhumane bureaucracy and xenophobia are always worth fighting against, their existence in Western nations is hardly news: there is a naive edge to the indignation that fuels the 28-year-old playwright’s writing.
The most interesting moments of Indhu Rubasingham’s production — of the whole Tricycle series, in fact — come in the few scenes that push the boundaries of naturalism, prompting questions about the naggingly televisual quality of all three playwrights’ offerings.
Set in a too-indistinguishable series of London offices, Agbaje’s drama concerns efforts to free a detained young male Zimbabwean asylum seeker, the clunkily-named Justice (Aml Ameen). His equally symbolically-monikered sister Grace (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who has refugee status in the U.K., becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to free her brother and keep him in the country.
New to the rough-and-ready world of public service, slick black lawyer Cole (Karl Collins) starts out cynical but ends up fully committed to Justice’s case, egged on by sparky intern Chi Chi (Rebecca Scroggs). As Cole locks horns with worn-down immigration department official Alfred (Jimmy Akingbola), Grace prostitutes herself to Alfred’s lascivious colleague Ben (Abhin Galeya) in her desperate attempts to (yes, this is an actual quote) “set Justice free”.
Subtle this is not. But Rubasingham and the cast throw themselves heart and soul into the enterprise, particularly in scenes focusing on the community of illegal workers in which Justice and Grace circulate, led by Ghanian pastor-turned-train-cleaner Pra (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). The early scene in which Pra and Nigerian cleaner Abeni (Cecelia Noble) counsel their white European friend Javon (Robert Whitelock) how to work the immigration system plays close to the edge of parody in the African characters’ exaggerated performative manner. However, Noble and Holdbrook-Smith pull it off, thanks to excellent comic timing.
Similarly entertaining (but also flirting with cliche) is a church scene in which a microphone-wielding Holdbrook-Smith directly addresses the audience. This breaking of the fourth wall productively breaks up the naturalistic feel and adds considerable energy.
Agbaje is a talented writer of dialogue and character; she has shown herself in this and previous play “Gone too Far!” to have a strong ear for the subtleties of spoken urban English. Her choice here to expand treatment of the black British experience to include new immigrant populations is innovative and welcome.
The formal conservatism of this series overall, however, is striking; the plays could just as easily have appeared on television. Pushing these writers towards greater innovation, or the inclusion of the works of formally innovative playwrights such as Debbie Tucker Green, might have provided a more exciting and promising snapshot of black British theatrical life than that offered here.