Highlights from the 2016 Africa Writes Festival – Theatre Review: ‘The Immigrant’ by Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor
|100 years from now and, oh, how the tables have turned. Oliver (Edmund Wiseman) is a Brit seeking refuge in the economically-strong African Union (AU). Europeans have recently tried to re-invade Africa only to be met with even fiercer resistance than they anticipated. Caucasians now make up a large proportion of the underclass. This is also life post-Brexit where UKIP are in power and anyone who doesn’t fall in line faces violent reprisals.
Oliver’s own harrowing story instigates his quest for asylum but he’s not receiving any sympathy from embittered immigration officer Usman (Damola Adelaja). History, real and predicted, is thrown into Oliver’s face. With limited options, his only hope is to convince the intransigent official that his plight is genuine. When an emergency security lock-down confines the two men to a grim cell for an indefinite period, their interactions become increasingly confrontational.
Playwright Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor has intended to create a discursive piece par-excellence. Even in its embryonic stages (as a work-in-progress featured at the 2016 Africa Writes Festival), ‘The Immigrant’ has already succeeded. Softly-spoken Akpojotor’s easy-going manner belies the fearlessness of her latest work. There’s a delicious irony to the fact that ‘The Immigrant’ predated the EU Referendum by a year and yet depicts a future that, in light of recent events, is more tangible than ever. Akpojotor claims she wrote the play as more ‘fantasy than prediction’, having barely changed the topical content since the Referendum. Any relation to real people or events is by sheer, unnerving coincidence.
The young playwright doesn’t humour any Utopian clichés about tomorrow’s world. Her 22nd century is not a post-racial society. Inter-cultural relations, if anything, have regressed. Hegemony and systemic justice remains. International borders are still rigidly defended. Immigration regulations seem, at times, as inhumane as ever…
Same script, ethnically-different cast. Except this time there’s the weight of recent history as imagined by Akpojotor. European privilege and entitlement is not so much a passport as an historic milestone around Oliver’s neck.
Where there’s not much room for nuance in Usman’s (and sometimes Oliver’s) arguments, there’s nonetheless an abundance in the piece as a whole. Akpojotor jettisons any notion of Africans being inherently more virtuous and compassionate if the roles were reversed. Neither does she sanctify victimhood in either man; an impressively novel and audacious stance to take for a play about racism.
Adelaja and Wiseman perform with both the comfort and conviction of actors who are passionate about a project they have helped to shape and mould. There’s a real and fractured humanity to their polished portrayals, in particular Adelaja, who skilfully resists the temptation to make Usman a caricature of officiousness.
‘The Immigrant’ could have lazily succumbed to the dual dangers of gimmick and cliché. Instead familiar topics and arguments undergo a thorough and refreshing deconstruction on both the societal and personal level. To say it is thought-provoking would be a gross understatement. Akpojotor’s play will unsettle you in the best possible manner.
Written by Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor
Damola Adelaja – Usman
Edmund Wiseman – Oliver
This review was first featured on ‘I Was Just Thinking…’