The final play to join the Tricycle theatre’s Not Black And White season explores immigration from every angle.
Playwright Bola Agbaje has a lot to live up to. Her first play, 2007’s Gone Too Far!, won a Laurence Olivier Award and saw Agbaje nominated for the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright.
Detaining Justice, which sits alongside the work of established writers Roy Williams and Kwame Kwei-Armah, follows the immigration process of Justice, a Zimbabwean man held in a detention centre after illegally entering the UK to escape political persecution, and almost certain death, in his home country.
The twists and turns of the process are presented from every viewpoint; from Justice’s own deteriorating optimism to that of the lawyer who moves from seeing him as another statistic to a fellow human in need, from the caseworker so angry about the influx of immigrants that he can no longer see the suffering to Justice’s fellow immigrants who have escaped persecution but have different troubles to fight against.
It would have been very easy for Agbaje to have picked one side of the argument and present the piece from that angle. It is to her credit that she hasn’t, allowing each character to vent their feelings and arguments without prejudice. Yes, there are some hideous actions meted out as Justice’s position goes from bad to worse, actions that are rightly hard to watch, but they do not diminish or undermine arguments, instead merely reflecting the depths to which people will stoop in anger and desperation.
In amongst the tense drama and swirling emotions of the situation, Agbaje and director Indhu Rubasingham have woven some fine comic moments, most memorably from the trio of train cleaning immigrants played by Cecilia Noble, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Robert Whitelock, whose bickering and fighting help brighten up a depressing situation.
In Agbaje’s programme notes, she says “we cannot answer everything in life”; Detaining Justice reflects just that. It presents a tough tale and believable characters with their own strong opinions, but is wise enough to know that 90 minutes is nowhere near long enough to answer a question as testing as that of immigration.