Bola Agbaje [image credit Brian Would]
We caught up with award-winning playwright Bola Agbaje to discuss her new play, Belong.
What is your new play Belong about?
It’s about politics but at the same time it’s also about family politics. I feel that in the last couple of years with all the stuff in the news about the economy and the recession everyone’s searching for that sense of home. You’re constantly told that there’s only so much you can obtain in the western world but at the same time there are African countries which are thriving at the moment. So people, especially people who are of dual nationality, are searching for that sense of home and are looking at that other place as a means of starting over again. I especially wanted to have a look at an older character searching for a sense of belonging, because most of my plays have been about young characters, but sometimes you can go through a whole life and not know where you fit in. You know my parents are Nigerian and I’m fascinated by my Nigerian heritage and that’s what inspired me to write the play.
How do you think politics in Nigeria compares to the political system in Britain?
Oh it’s a different ballgame completely. The negative is that there’s an element of danger with politics in Africa, it’s do or die. But the positive is that anybody can become anything in these countries. Ultimately you can say “I want to be the president of Nigeria” and work your way up. There’s loads of complications to it and there are grey areas but there is still a sense of anything is possible.
I feel like sometimes glass ceilings are imposed on me, whereas in Africa there’s just more room for opportunity. 100 percent. One thing we explore in the play is that the colour of your skin does not mean anything in Africa, because in Britain I feel that the colour of my skin is constantly scrutinised. Like I feel like I’m constantly reminded that I’m a woman and I’m black, and I’m like “I know that!” (Laughs). But while it can frustrate me, it’s a double edged sword because I’m proud of it. It’s a great thing for people to talk about me growing up in Peckham and that I’ve had three plays put on in the Royal Court, but at the same time it seems like I’m black before I’m anything, but I’m Bola before I’m black. But what we also explore in the play is that Kayode, who’s the lead, is black but there’s the issue of him being an outsider, him being British, so he has to find his own identity.
Growing up in Britain would you say that you’re British before you’re Nigerian?
No, I don’t like calling myself British; it’s just a personal thing. A person whose parents are from Africa are two sides of a coin, British by convenience, like they can say they’re British when it suits them and say they’re Nigerian when it suits them. I will proudly say I’m a Londoner; if there was a London flag I would fly that high and proud! But when I leave London and go to Liverpool or Sheffield I don’t feel British, I’m very much aware that I’m not ‘British British’. I’d say I’m a Londoner before anything else, and then I’d say I’m Nigerian, and then I might say I’m British depending on what day it is and where it is. Living in London I know a lot of second or third generation immigrants who find it difficult to claim that British identity. I don’t think that’s just a black thing, I know a lot of second generation Kosovans or Hungarians who feel the same way.
Obviously the play is about Belonging. Would you say that in London you feel like you belong?
Yeah I would. This is something we’re exploring in the play; where is a person’s home? What is it that defines it? Where do you belong? That’s something that even in rehearsals we’re questioning and everybody’s different. I can’t speak on behalf of every third or second generation migrant that comes to this country, I can only speak for myself. Ultimately home is where your heart is and that’s different depending on your upbringing and troubles you’ve had. Whether you’re black, white, whatever, it depends upon you as an individual as to what defines home for you. In the play we’re exploring someone’s journey and we’ve got some amazing actors and I can’t praise my cast enough. It’s great to see the play take shape and see it coming to life.
Belong by Bola Agbaje
This is the second to me you’ve worked with director Indhu Rubasingham, did you choose to work with her again?
Yeah, it’s nice to work with someone that you know and it’s a great partnership we have.
The last time I worked with her was in 2009 and since then I’ve grown somewhat and it’s great to collaborate at a different stage. Indhu understands me as a person and so therefore she understands my work. We just click personally, and it’s so important to have that level of understanding with the questions that I’m trying to explore in the play.
Originally you wanted to pursue acting. What made you change to writing?
It was out of frustration, I felt there weren’t enough roles that I could understand fully or that interested me. Originally I wrote my first play thinking I was going to be one of the actors in it. But I realised quickly after I wrote that play that I just like the idea of being an actor, the glitz and glamour. But I get nervous, even during the castings if I end up doing read throughs with the actors I just feel so embarrassed that I’m not doing it justice. Acting’s just not for me! I’ve found my calling in writing.
Belong is a co production between The Royal Court and Tiata Fahodzi. I understand the first play that inspired you was a Tiata Fahodzi production?
It was, it was. I saw a play called The Gods are Not to Blame by a playwright called Ola Rotimi. I was going to a part time drama school at this theatre and a play was on upstairs so I went to watch it. I was blown away by the performance and by the fact my culture was represented on stage and it wasn’t watered down and there were no excuses, I just couldn’t believe it. So I’ve always wanted to do the same thing and I’ve always wanted to write this play Belong. People ask if it’s a big step because my first play was set in Peckham, on an estate about young people, but this play has always been in me. I’ve always wanted to write a play set in Nigeria about Nigerians I just didn’t know how to go about doing that, and when I watched that play I realised I wanted to celebrate my culture and it’s taken me a couple of years to figure out how to go about it.
So writing a play with a different setting hasn’t been a challenge for you?
It wasn’t a challenge at all. I think people assume you’re a one trick pony; two of my plays have been set on estates so people assume this will be on an estate and around the same sort of characters. But it’s always been there, I've always wanted to explore this country not necessarily from the point of view of a politician but I’ve always wanted to set a play in Nigeria. I wanted to do that before I even wrote my first play. But having an idea is different to sitting down and formulating a script and constructing a scene. I had to sit back on that idea and wait for the right time to write it.
I’ve always wanted to set a play in Nigeria. I wanted to do that before I even wrote my first play.
And then I was approached by Tiata Fahodzi in 2010 and they wanted to commission me, the ethos of their theatre is to explore the African British culture and put it on stage. So I sat down with the previous artistic director Femi Elufowoju Junior and said that was a theme I wanted to explore and he said, “Yeah, go ahead.” So that’s how this play has finally come about.
To get under the skin of Nigerian politics what sort of research did you have to do?
I follow a lot of Nigerian politicians on Twitter so a lot of the research was done by speaking to politicians that I know or people who I know that were moving back to Nigeria to start all over again. A lot of the research was just talking and reading up about the political situation and people’s struggles. Most of my research though, was done by talking to my family who live in Nigeria about their hopes and dreams for their country.
You’ve won several awards including an Olivier award for Outstanding achievement in an Affiliated Theatre. Is there any particular award that you dream of winning?
Well, I’d love win an Olivier for best play, so there’s still levels to get to with the Olivier! But whilst it’s fantastic getting awards and feeling your work is appreciated, although it sounds so clichéd the main thing is that other people get an understanding of your work and that the audience enjoys it. What’s most important is that an audience comes and appreciates the play and is able to go away and have discussions about it and want to see more of my work. That’s what’s most important to me, that I’m able to satisfy and audience.
What’s most important is that an audience comes and appreciates the play and is able to go away and have discussions about it and want to see more of my work. That’s what’s most important to me, that I’m able to satisfy and audience.
What’s next for you?
I’m still trying to get my first feature film Gone Too Far off the ground, for me it’s been a lot harder than theatre, the whole process of sourcing funding. I’m working with a Liverpudlian company called Twenty Stories High and I just recently put in a first draft and script for a commission that they’ve given me, so am in the process of that. I’m also about to start working on another play about a subject matter that’s interested me for a long time, so am looking forward to getting on with that as well. I just want to keep writing more plays, if I’m able to reach out and relate to the people watching something I’ve written then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Belong is at the Royal Court theatre from April 26 to May 26, 2012.
2010 interview with Bola Agbaje, Off the Endz