“For the first time in my life I’m not reminded that I’m black. You can’t begin to imagine what that feels like.” That heartfelt cry by Kayode (Lucian Msamati) is not just the climax of Bola Agbaje’s engaging new play “Belong,” it’s the thematic pivot. Vigorous acting in Indhu Rubasingham’s precise production gives energetic life to the play’s examination of identity and exactly what constitutes “home,” but although Agbaje sustains her impressively comic edge even as the material deepens, the increasing weakness of her plotting ultimately undermines the drama.
Having just lost an election in London thanks to stirring up racial controversy — “You’re still trending on Twitter,” sighs his wife Rita (gracefully long-suffering Noma Dumezweni) — black Nigerian politician Kayode decides to escape the heat by going to stay with his wealthy mother (Pamela Nomvete) in Nigeria.
But it’s not just the discomfort of being a 45-year-old suddenly under his powerful mother’s thumb that rankles. As he slowly discovers, being Nigerian-born is not enough. His position as a black man in his home country is massively compromised by his status as a highly educated, middle-class Brit. Moreover, his staunchly conservative way of doing things flies in the face of the practices of a divided society that, despite its rapid growth, or possibly because of it, is riven by corruption.
Agbaje smartly balances Kayode’s struggle with arguments at his London home between London-loving Rita and their relentlessly superficial, one-time friend Fola (nicely comic Jocelyn Jee Esien) who always knows what’s best (i.e. attracting any/everyone to Nigeria) and has never come to grips with the concept of listening to other people. Thanks to Ben Stones’ versatile design, the similarity of the arguments in both countries is neatly underlined by having the same space double as opposing locations.
Wheedling, cajoling and switching between faux innocence and tough-mindedness, Pamela Nomvete lights up the stage as Mama. Alternately highly amusing and coldly authoritative, her focused energy stems from the richness of characterization that drives Agbaje’s writing. It’s surprising, therefore, to find the central character so underwritten.
Msamati is an actor of extraordinary range but even he cannot lend Kayode more than a sense of frustrated zeal. There’s less of a fully-fledged character here, more a position around which Agbaje voices concerns about political identity. And the deeper she sends him into contemporary Nigerian politics — notably in Rubasingham’s powerfully staged electioneering scene — the more naive and less plausible the character grows. Agbaje is intent upon raising the stakes via the manipulations of power-broking local Chief Olowolaye (charismatic Richard Pepple) but although the resulting bribery and violence ring horribly true, the thinly written narrative is too contrived for the climax to carry its intended weight.
Agbaje’s 2008 debut, written when she was 26, won her an Olivier award. Although the whole is less satisfying than its parts, “Belong” is further proof of talent. Rubasingham’s beautifully balanced cast reveal the immediacy of the writing that creates real connection between audience and material.