Lava review: Wry, magnetic and urgent study of black identity and displacement

Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in Lava (Helen Murray)
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in Lava (Helen Murray)

Apparently autobiographical, Benedict Lombe’s monologue starts out as a wry, low-key story of black identity and displacement, but becomes something much more expansive and scalding. It’s stunningly performed by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo. And in a week when racism was laid bare in the UK, but barely discomfited those who enable it, Lava feels shamingly timely.

Thanks to an anomaly over her name when she applies for a new British passport, the twentysomething lead character – known only as Her – tracks back through her journey from Congo to London via South Africa, Ireland and Wigan.

At first it’s comic: our modern, meme-savvy heroine points out that Congo has “had more names than P Diddy”. She eye-rolls her way through her mother’s lecture about colonialism and confesses that her main cultural fix in South Africa was Dawson’s Creek.

But reality slowly erodes her swagger. There’s the shockingly imprecise slaughter of “10 to 15 million Congolese” by Belgian imperialists. The legacy of apartheid that means black South Africans attack her family as “foreigners”. In Ireland and Wigan, she stands out. Everywhere she lands, she is told she is “different”.

As she explains this, chummy recorded voices repeatedly ask: “Why does it always have to be about race?” And, when she meets her non-black partner in a meet-cute straight out of a US sitcom, he is baldly questioned: “What’s it like to be with a black girl?” The answer she gives, performing as him, is a terrific piece of writing.

Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in Lava at the Bush Theatre (Helen Murray)
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in Lava at the Bush Theatre (Helen Murray)

Adékoluẹjo enters dancing like no one, and everyone, is looking and is by turns conspiratorial, sincere, goofy and blazingly angry. She’s as magnetic alone on a small stage as she was in the National Theatre’s Three Sisters in 2019. And she negotiates the tricky end of this rollercoaster 80-minute piece wonderfully.

We see Lombe’s own filmed monologue for the Bush from 2020 responding to George Floyd’s death, her fury at a review that called it “more lecture than theatre” and the wider problem of black trauma being repackaged as entertainment or education for white audiences. It ends with a montage of videos celebrating the creativity and joy of black people. And a demand that the sanctioned murder, casual cruelty and wearying psychological damage of racism should be acknowledged: “It is time. It has always been time.”

Lava is delightfully ungoverned. I can see a different universe where I might have described it as more lecture than theatre. But the quality of the writing, of Adékoluẹjo’s performance, and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s direction keep it on the side of urgency. This show asks black people to be proud and asks white people if they should be ashamed. To which the answer is, yes. Yes, we should.

To 7 Aug,

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