LONDON — What does it feel like to be seeking sanctuary in the UK, and how are asylum seekers treated? Ishmael is a young gay man who flees Zimbabwe when his relationship with another man is discovered.
Rejected by his former lover, who has already secured asylum and won’t speak up for him, Ishmael is sent to Leeds, where he awaits the outcome of his application, friendless and lonely in a damp flat with a broken bed, painfully eking out his £36 a week. The landlady won’t even shake his hand. “She owns everything in this flat, including my dignity,” he observes.
Zodwa Nyoni’s monologue is directed with stark simplicity by Alex Chisholm and performed by Lladel Bryant with affecting directness and a gift for conjuring characters, from the middle-aged cafe owner Cath to the teenage mother Bex. It offers a glimpse into both Ishmael’s life and his head. There are the intimate questions asked by tribunal officials considering his claim, who demand that the shy Ishmael describes what a male organ feels like; the threatening teenager who waits for him in the darkness; the assistant at the local supermarket who humiliates him in front of the other customers.
The brevity of the piece, which runs at just under an hour, means that the play sometimes lacks detail, depth and context, but the writing captures the emotional complexity of the situation, particularly in Ishmael’s relationship with Bex, who holds out a hand of friendship.
It’s also very good at conjuring a sense of the hustle and bustle of everyday Leeds, and making us understand how the endless waiting to hear the outcome of an asylum application turns life into mere existence. Like Beckett in Godot, Nyoni makes us share the wait.
This is a snapshot, but it’s a truthful one and suggests that Nyoni, who has already made her mark with Boi Boi Is Dead, is a playwright well worth watching.