Immigration as seen through the eyes of a detainee

PUBLISHED: 10:54 04 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:35 07 September 2010

In the final play of the Tricycle Theatre s Not Black and White season, playwright Bola Agbaje explores immigration. She talks to Bridget Galton THE Tricycle Theatre s Not Black and White season has so far dramatised the prison system and the election

In the final play of the Tricycle Theatre's Not Black and White season, playwright Bola Agbaje explores immigration. She talks to Bridget Galton

THE Tricycle Theatre's Not Black and White season has so far dramatised the prison system and the election campaign of a black London mayor.

The last in a trio of plays by black writers probing multicultural London in the noughties, is Bola Agbaje's Detaining Justice.

The playwright, whose debut play Gone Too was staged at the Royal Court and won an Olivier Award, took a week-long course with the Immigration Advisory Service before writing her second.

Set against a background of recession and rising unemployment, it tackles the fraught arguments surrounding immigration through the eyes of a detainee called Justice and his public defender Mark Cole.

Cole is a former prosecutor now defending would-be immigrants following a change of heart. Justice, languishing in a detention centre pending his asylum application, calls on sister Grace for help but she wants to leave it in God's hands.

"I always wanted to write about immigration," says Agbaje, whose day job is at an East London housing association.

"I thought I knew a lot about it, but I learned so much on that course, about visas, the problems officers face and the restrictions set up to stop people from coming here, it was a real eye-opener.

"There were so many stories I could have written about this subject and it was very hard to not to push my own views. I wanted to create something more balanced that shows both sides of the story."

She adds: "What I find fascinating is that people always think of it as a problem they must try to fix. It's such a vast subject it's very hard to say, 'this is right, this is wrong, this is the way to fix it'."

Agbaje has also watched TV programmes such as UK Border Force which deal with immigration but wanted to write about the subject "in a way that hasn't been done before".

"I wanted a story with a moral at the end, a slice of life about the problems faced by immigration officers and the people they deal with. I wanted to present the officers as human beings. Their job is so subjective it depends on whether or not they believe your story and choose to investigate a case and that could depend on the way your dress or whether you look shifty."

"The whole story is about Justice, about how to get justice for someone's rights and what steps you need to achieve it. There are also questions about Christianity and belief - three characters work really hard as cleaners but have a strong faith in God. When things go bad they turn to unquestioning faith. When they can't resolve a problem they believe there must be a higher being to interact - that's how people cope in with these difficult situations."

Agbaje had always wanted to write but with no background in it, she had no idea how to get started. She found the Royal Court's young writer's group via a Google search and joined at the age of 26. Shortly afterwards, Gone Too Far was selected for the theatre's young writer's festival.

"I wanted to tell stories that people could relate to and I wanted to make a difference. There weren't enough black roles for young black women and I thought instead of sitting there complaining I might as well do something about it."

With the Not Black and White Season, she has now joined more established playwrights Roy Williams and Kwame Kwei-Armah in probing what it is to be black in modern London.

The season runs in rep until December 15.

"Inevitably you start off writing your own vision about the world you live in. I take multiculturalism for granted living in London, it's around every day, I don't feel oppressed but my parents tell me it wasn't like that before and other writers say I am lucky to have opportunities I wouldn't have got even 10 years ago.

"I am so new to writing, I have only just begun this journey but I think it's important to look at the changes that are taking place around us - fuelled by my passion and from my particular perspective.


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