Lava is more than just a play about race and identity – it is about a never-ending struggle to be acknowledged. Written by Benedict Lombe, the text was originally conceptualized in 2020 as part of the Bush Theatre’s Protest Series, a digital artistic response to the murder of George Floyd. A little over a year later and after a historical conviction in the legal trial, a lot has changed for the global Black community but equally, a lot has not – case in point being the England football team’s black players being subjected to racist abuse and trolling just a few days ago in the aftermath of a Euro Cup loss. Lava is not only an urgent call to acknowledge this moment in time for the Black community but a frantic imploration to recognize the world’s complicity in the past and the present.
At the centre of Lava is the story of a woman who is faced with a peculiar problem – her original South African passport does not carry her first name and without this important detail, Her Majesty’s Passport Office refuses to renew her British passport carrying her full name. Between this bureaucratic bother and other anxieties of adulthood, she is confronted by a question that’s followed her all her life – “why was she different from the others?”. What follows next is a trip down memory lane to her birth in Mobutu’s Congo, growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa, confusing adolescent years in Ireland, and finding her way in a hostile, uncertain England. At the backdrop of this personal account is a larger dialogue about Black history and oppression, and the global call for greater solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As Lombe points out additionally, Black artists are still expected to process years of trauma and emotional labour in an aesthetically pleasing, “palatable” way for audiences who don’t share their lived experience, or else, risk being labelled “too harsh” or “too angry” when they do decide to speak candidly, such as a review in a British newspaper that dismissed the Bush Theatre’s protest series from last year as “more lecture than theatre”. Lombe doesn’t wince any words, calling out these individual and institutional gatekeepers, and explores many intricate, complex ideas – such as intersectionality and how different parts of one’s identity can be discriminated against, the frustrating everyday conversations and verbal assaults one endures, and even the deconstruction of loaded phrases like “Black-on-Black crime” and “What’s it like dating a Black girl?”. The text is sharpy written and cleverly structured, moving between the personal and the political, and shakes us completely.
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo delivers a heartwarming performance throughout, juggling a variety of accents and vocal mannerisms (supported by dialect coach Esi Acquaah-Harrison) to craft the different characters we meet in each geographic location that Lombe introduces. As we move between the first half of the play, which focuses on the character’s coming of age, to the second half, wherein we find her struggling with insecurities that have reached a precipice in the aftermath of multiple hate crimes in the news, we witness a visible shift in Adékoluẹjo’s presence that demands our attention. It is here that Anthony Simpson-Pike’s direction leverages the theatrical “direct address” to the audience to evoke a multitude of emotions. In some moments, Adékoluẹjo invites us into the mundane madness of the character’s absurd legal situation with an effortless charm, whilst in others, she conveys a deep rage that’s been bubbling inside long before she found the words to articulate it. Jasmine Swan’s set design brings a lot of fiery personality and energy to the piece, consisting of a series of steps strewn with decaying lava and a gigantic delivery box that serves as the surface for Gino Ricardo Green’s impactful projection design that combines narrative-led video design with social media footage from the Black Lives Matter movement. Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design and Jai Morjaria’s light design succeed in elevating the subtle shifts in the text’s narrative – both geographical and emotional – and allow the audience to appreciate the distance they have travelled in a span of minutes. What’s particularly effective are the voices of the character’s friends who continue to interrupt and provoke her mid-thought, serving as a powerful reminder of how Black individuals constantly have to repeat themselves hoarse to communicate their own truth.
To summarize, Lava is a stellar exploration of the histories we carry in our names and its impact on our present-day lives. It’s a celebration of where the Black community finds itself today and equally, a forewarning of issues that still need to be acknowledged.
You can watch Lava at the Bush Theatre W12 8LJ till 07th August. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/lava-2/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 14th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★