Written by Nigerian-British poet and playwright Tolu Agbelusi, the title translates as ‘We Are Home’ and asks: You have chosen Britain, but has it chosen you?
Caught in the web of the government’s hostile environment as collateral damage or target, four strangers’ lives are interrupted when they can’t produce ID in a spot check.
What follows in the holding room where they wait for verification of their legal status are a series of interrogations of the self and each other, laying bare the realities and implications of always being ‘the other’ in a place you call home.
But given its current topicality, the play actually had its origins before any of us had even heard of Brexit.
Its origins lay in a project called Home Is… which gathered up the stories of dozens of people who now call Britain home and what those words mean to them.
Tolu explains: ‘I’m a storyteller poet and I’m always interested in how I can do things that are a little bit out of the box.
‘The play is part of the Home Is... project, looking at poetry in collaboration with other art-forms to explore this topic. I’ve seen other poetry-plays where it tends to be a lot of poems – one person will talk and then another person will talk after them. I wanted to see how do I marry both properly?
‘It wouldn’t do it as much justice if was just one poem than another poem – you wouldn’t see these people’s lives’ connect.
‘It’s not just about their interactions with the state and how they feel excluded, it also comes down to their prejudices against each other and what it does to them in that room. The assumption is that they’re all the same, but they’re four people who would probably never talk to each other in a different world, and I felt the longer story does it best to bring that out.
Tolu worked with other poets on pulling out storylines and even direct dialogue from what they had collected.
‘Thankfully they agreed to allow me to dissect and break down their words and use them how I chose. It felt better that way, and more powerful. I also ended up bringing people into poetry who don’t think they like poetry,’ she laughs.
The show made its debut in 2016, but when it was revived for another run, Tolu was worried it wouldn't be current enough to strike a wider chord with audiences. But fate has intervened.
‘When the Windrush stuff happened so many people who had seen it the first time started contacting me and saying: “Oh my gosh, that thing you wrote, that’s exactly what this is!”
‘One of the stories is about a guy who grew up here and has been here since he was young. Then someone tells him he’s not British when he has been to school here and done everything here – and that’s what a lot of the Windrush stories were: “I’ve always been here, where do you want me to go?” Some of the other stories that come out through the play are about that, I didn’t foresee it, it just happened that way.
‘The more we go through the Brexit saga, the more of the effects of what the play is talking about expands in terms of its reach.
‘First of all it was Caribbeans and people from Commonwealth countries, India, somewhere in Africa, and now you’ve got Europeans saying: “What do you mean I have to register? I’ve lived here for x number of years!”
‘People who wouldn’t normally be interested or concerned in that story are now feeling the effects of it personally.’
Tolu believes the play also has something to teach those lucky enough not to have experienced this kind of upheaval in their lives.
‘For those who haven’t experienced displacement from the racial or ethnic perspective, we’ve all still experienced some form of displacement, maybe in the playground at school or whatever else it was.
‘How do you then parallel your experience with the experience you don’t understand from someone else? It still hurts you, the effects are the same. If this hurts you, what is it doing to the other person and how do we make them each see the other and not the stereotypes?’
So is it ultimately an optimistic piece or not?
‘It is and it isn’t.
‘It doesn’t end by giving anyone answers, I will say that.
‘I don’t think there are any answers that are straightforward, but it shows if we take the time, sometimes the person we think we hate isn’t actually that bad, and that we’re actually not that far from that person, and maybe there’s a reason they are who they are.
‘There are light moments in between as well. In life most of how we get through difficulties is through light moments.
‘So there are light moments which come from unexpected characters at different points, and it’s just their way of dealing with it – there are those moments that bring people together too.’
The piece also represents a cry of self-expression for people in a world that seeks to deny who they are.
‘The title is a bit of defiance – to say: “Whatever you tell me, I get to decide, in this moment at least, who I am”. And to me, there’s some optimism in that. I, or whoever that is, is claiming that for themselves, and taking charge of their own destiny right now – I’m deciding how I choose to feel about someone telling me to “go home”. I’m deciding that I might be angry for two minutes, then I’m going to let it go – I’m not going to give you that power over me.’
ILÉ LA WÀ (WE ARE HOME)
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Thursday, April 11