It goes without saying that confidence in the British political system is probably at an all-time low, so this play, exploring what life would be like if Africa was the most powerful continent in the world, could not have been performed at a more suitable time.
This performance marked the finale of Africa Writes, a three-day festival at Britain’s national library celebrating contemporary African literature.
It is 2116, 100 years from now, and Oliver Montgomerie (Edmund Wiseman) is a Brit seeking asylum in the African Union (AU). He has been placed in detention and is pleading his case to Usman (Damola Adelaja), a border official who is not fond of immigrants.
Usman’s thick African accent and his agitation with the stereotypical nature of Oliver’s case brings a comical edge to the play from the outset. But the “white man” being the one in the cell is a powerful symbol, and soon a deeper, darker past is revealed.
Oliver has experienced racism in Britain for his whole life, growing up with a father who was a member of “Britain First”, and later when married to a black woman. He fought tirelessly against prejudice, and insisted to Usman, “I’m one of you!”
But in Oliver, Usman only sees the echoes of his ancestor’s suffering. Oliver represents the oppression of all black people. Additionally, Oliver’s desire to experience the “African Dream” only highlights to Usman what he has missed out on – “utopia does not exist” in 22nd century Africa and the separation between rich and poor is still very apparent.
This complete role reversal was shocking and somehow more eye-opening than a play about modern-day Europe. A borderless AU (similar to Schengen); migrants dying on boats on the way to “a better life”; huge class divides; extremism; political upheaval. We simply cannot deny how familiar this is.
I found some of the references and generalisations about race and immigration a bit simplistic. These issues are much more complicated than the play suggested. Some of the play was unsettling and uncomfortable. But maybe that was the point. Throughout the performance and in the insightful Q&A which followed, I was forced to assess my own prejudices and understand that idealistic views of a united and tolerant Europe are neither helpful nor accurate (if we hadn’t been reminded of that enough already this week).
The play was first and foremost a celebration of African culture and dreams for the future, in keeping with the theme of the festival. A thriving Africa would certainly be wonderful to see! But the play forced the audience to question whether, even if the world was flipped on its head, how much would really change? Would the individuality of the migrant/refugee/asylum seekers’ story be heard? And what does that say about our own tolerance and sympathy today?
by Alice Jobson