House of Corrections by Bola Agbaje, Riverside Studios
Bola Agbaje’s latest offering, House of Corrections looks at the sensitive issue of families dealing with children in prison and the effect it has on the rest of the family.
This compelling initial idea is relevant and urgent, especially within this current climate with the number of black youth entering prisons on the increase, as well as providing the playwright with an avenue to explore the personal story of her own sibling being in prison.
Presented through the culturally specific eyes of an African family in Britain, we meet Rasheed, (Frank Williams) father of three who has decided to take control of his household following the incarceration of his eldest son, Saheed. ‘Taking control’ means getting rid of every item ‘purchased’ by Saheed in the house, ranging from designer clothes and accessories for his family down to the TV and even the sofa being removed from the house. His wife, interestingly named Peace, daughter, Deborah and son, Razak, bear the brunt of this reform as he directs his anger and disappointment of Saheed at his nearest and dearest. The constant arguments, playing the blame game with his wife, deciding to home school Razak, all come to a head when the young Razak is pushed to face up to his father in one of the most poignant scenes in the play.
Having said all the above, I was sadly disappointed with this 1 hour 30minutes production, which felt much, much longer. The representational set with ‘cracks’ on the walls and the lack luster opening, set the tone for the rest of the production. The pedestrian pace, with very little variation, the many unnecessary scene changes and awkward blocking resulted in a rather dragged out production.
Known for her ear for sharp dialogue, Agbaje’s script did not disappoint when it came to the younger characters in her play. The relationship between Deborah and Razak was cleverly observed as it moved through the effects of their father’s treatment of them. His continued verbal and physical abuse particularly of his son put a strain on the relationship between the siblings climaxing with Razak slapping his sister out of frustration. It is in the writing of the parents’ generation however that the writing fails for me. Presented in a two dimensional manner, their many comical ‘one liners’, though funny and recognisable soon turned to clichés of the clash of cultures and generations without a much needed exploration of what drives their fears.
Known for her ear for sharp dialogue, Agbaje’s script did not disappoint when it came to the younger characters in her play.
Peace, the mother just wants to save face and restore some kind of false family dignity within the community, whilst Rasheed morphs into a one man dictator in his home, both representing a falsification of the West African family. Even though Agbaje writes about the second generation with a significant level of authority and ownership, the work was let down by the caricature portrayal of the parents, whose further development would add meaningfully to the complexities of the West African cultural experience.
One stand out moment that deserves mention is towards the end of the production, when the young Razak, played by the promising Edward Kagutuzi, stands up to his bullying father. This key moment where the father goads his son into submission using the long held but outdated notion of the elders always being right and not to be questioned is challenged when the misguided abuse and violence the father uses to ‘control’ his son confronts him. Razak is forced to defend himself by overpowering his father physically and then breaking down, driving the point home that he is not his incarcerated brother Saheed. The following one quiet moment of introspection was delivered with heartfelt depth by the young Edward Kagutuzi.
House of Correction, written to coincide with Black History Month, felt more like a work in progress than a finished product. If it is given the necessary gestation period of any good play, and if Agbaje’s repertoire is anything to go by, House of Correction should chalk up another critically acclaimed production for Agbaje.
House of Corrections by Bola Agbaje was at the Riverside Studios from October 31 to November 4, 2012
Afridiziak Theatre News interview with Bola Agbaje