Torn, Arcola, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Femi Oguns' debut play, in which he also stars, is a contemporary Romeo and Juliet-type drama of young love fighting to survive in a world of corrosive enmities.

The twist is that both the families here are black. South Londoners David and Natasha are soul-mates, but their relationship is opposed by his redoubtable sister Kemi and her resentful, widowed father Malcolm.

The problem is that David is Nigerian and Natasha is of Jamaican extraction. Kemi doesn't want "a Jamo piece of crap" in their home and dismisses Caribbeans as good for nothing but dreadlocks and crack-dealing. Malcolm is no more broad-minded, castigating Nigerians as jungle bunnies who are inherently corrupt and the villains who sold his people into slavery.

Staged in the round, with the offstage characters watching the action through translucent curved screens, Raz Shaw's production is energised by vibrant performances from an excellent cast who do rich justice to the street-smart, savvy humour and sharp observation in the piece.

Over the past year, we've witnessed a spate of plays that have tackled the tensions within British black society, dismantling the idea that the hyphenate "Afro-Caribbean" designates a homogeneous unit.

Kwame Kwei-Armah's Statement of Regret imagined a black think-tank split along ethnic lines when the head advocated that reparations for slavery should go only to Caribbeans. Joe Guy by Roy Williams, set in the macho, rivalry-ridden milieu of professional football, and Bola Agbaje's Gone Too Far!, with its focus on separately reared and then reunited brothers, demonstrated how the white divide-and-rule policy has warped the blacks' sense of their shared history.

By contrast with these other works, Torn spends too much time debating the issues rather than properly dramatising them. But its shifts between the vitriolic and the tender are handled deftly and Oguns has a shrewd, witty eye for the extent and variety of racist stereotyping. Natasha's dim-witted chum, for example, sleeps exclusively with black guys because they're so "gangsta". And as Natasha points out to her dad, his prejudices are a bit ironic, given that "the other islands think we Jamaican are the scum of the West Indies". I look forward keenly to Femi Oguns's next play.

To 2 August (020-7503 1646)

Comments