At age 12, Inua Ellams and his family headed an approximate 5,000 km north, as they left Nigeria for London. Twenty years on, the poet, playwright and performer taps into his Nigerian roots to tell personal stories of race, gender, religion and immigration. With his show “An Evening with an Immigrant” touring during Brexit and a Trump presidency, his work has become somewhat of a talking point—a vehicle to hear the other side of the story, to hear tales of “inner city living, of being a human being, but particularly, of being a black man in the world.”
On his recent trip to Melbourne to perform “Black T-shirt Collection” at Arts Centre Melbourne, Inua and I caught up and spoke about Africa’s literary history, the influence of hip hop and wandering the streets of London from dusk to dawn.
Inua Ellams on the Arts Centre Melbourne stage before his performance of Black T-shirt Collection. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“Black T-shirt Collection” is a story of two brothers: one gay, one straight, one Muslim, one Christian. They travel from Nigeria to Cairo, London to China. How much of your own experience—in terms of race, immigration and religion—came through in that story?
Quite a lot. And I forgot about that until I started re-rehearsing the play. And realised all over again. I’m touring a show called An Evening With An Immigrant where I talk about that [race, immigration and religion] intensely for about ninety minutes. I wrote this show originally in 2012. Five years have passed in that time. So when I was re-rehearsing this, I saw again: right, this is where everything comes from.
My father was a Muslim. My mother was a Christian. And I grew up in a multi-faith household. My middle name is Muhammed like one of the characters in the play. Muhammed had to flee homophobia in Nigeria, which is compounded by the fact that he is a Muslim. And we had to leave because of the beginnings of extremist activities in northern Nigeria. In terms of sexual orientation, although I’m straight, when I was a kid, I had very close ties with male friends and people used to make fun of me, laughing, saying I was gay because of that. I have three sisters in my family and because there was more of them than me, it dictated what games we played, which meant I grew up doing things that boys would not stereotypically do. Therefore, gender, as a construct, has always been problematic to me. There are elements of me in the both of those characters. Also, I work as a graphic designer, and Matthew as the t-shirt designer, reflects my personal aesthetics.
“I decided to try and do the difficult thing, which at the time was to write about myself.”
These themes of race, identity and immigration run through a lot of your work. How important is it for you to share your personal experiences through your work?
When I first started writing, I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say about myself. I just looked at the world and thought if I threw my pen in any direction, I would hit something. I tended to write a lot about society’s ills, history, racism—everything from the racial inequality to gender inequality. But I began to realise that it lacked the element of risk. I worked with a storyteller and a poet Robbie Robertson and he said to me, “When you step on stage, you have to give the audience a piece of yourself. They have to leave knowing more about you than they did when they entered the space.” I went through a couple of difficult periods of my life and I was going to stop writing until an opportunity came to write my very first play called The Fortunate Tale. And I decided to try and do the difficult thing, which at the time was to write about myself. So I did and that was a one-person, coming-of-age story, which is intensely biographical. Ever since then, I have been deconstructing aspects of my identity to see if I can create characters that can embody it better than I could singularly—as a voice, as a character, as a person that exists in the world. And when you write something, which is based so much on the baggage you carry, you care about it a lot more.
Inua Ellams at Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
Can you tell me why you decided to tell a tale of two brothers through a one-man show?
When I set out to write it, I wanted to write a small story. But I wanted to tell it visually as well, which is why there are graphic elements. But also, I read about all these typical story arcs, the hero’s journey, and I wanted to poke and compound that as much as possible. I wanted to write a story where you aren’t entirely sure who’s journey it is, who is the main protagonist, until the very end when you realise it is Matthew.
And how do you think that worked?
I think the story is successful in these dual portrayals of black male masculinity, in the various worlds they find themselves, and yet their stories are interwoven seamlessly like Matthew can’t exist without Muhammed. They sort of push and pull each other through the various situations they find themselves in.
“The sonic soundscape they create tells narratives of difficult inner city living, of being a human being, but particularly, of being a black man in the world.”
I read that you are heavily influenced by hip-hop. How do you find this translates to stage?
I think primarily through the use of lyricism and internal rhyme in sentences, however stretched, however short, however quick, however precise they are. The sonic soundscape they create tells narratives of difficult inner city living, of being a human being, but particularly, of being a black man in the world. I think the second thing is this idea of one man against the world, which is a hip-hop troupe and fable and mysticism and mythology that is built into the characters who perform. There’s a definite element of that that I write into the stories I create. But I also find ways to deconstruct, crystallise and critique in ways.
When you started creating this sort of work, did you research Nigerian storytelling and its history?
I researched a lot. I started writing this play when I didn’t have the rights to live or work in England, and I couldn’t travel to any other places, I just had to research everything and figure out what Cairo looked like, what a silk shirt factory in China looked like, what fashion industries look like in Europe… Everything.
“The fact that they found scrolls and pyramids, that Mali owns the oldest university on earth, that’s clear proof that we had a literary tradition.”
A lot of your work is very location-based—“Barbershop Chronicles”, “An Evening with an Immigrant”, and of course, “Black T-shirt Collection”. How do you research those places to capture their essence?
I try to travel as much as I can or I just research or meet people from these countries, listen to podcasts, watch films or documentaries… Anything I can get my hands on.
You spent your childhood in Nigeria and a good part of your adulthood in London. I am interested, how do those two places play out in your work?
The aspects of the one-person show that I create are couched in my Nigerian-hood and in oral traditions. I think the myth of Nigerian or African oral traditions have been popularised for two reasons: one was to show we had a culture of storytelling and an oral and literary arts culture; and secondly, it was popularised to remind people that there wasn’t a way for us to record our art and our histories. The fact that they found scrolls and pyramids, that Mali owns the oldest university on earth, that’s clear proof that we had a literary tradition. And slowly we are beginning to chip away at that false narrative. I began starting to write and perform and think, “okay, everything the African Americans have been doing—they gave rise to hip-hop—what the Greeks have been doing as well, Africans and Nigerians have been doing that. I do have some agency; I can own this—I can call this my art.”
I don’t think I’m particularly influenced by the work that I have seen in the UK. Maybe I’m influenced by the cultural spaces and the anomaly that I often find myself in—or the role that I find myself playing, which is that I’m sort of an outsider who wasn’t born in England. Lots of black artists write about their black Britishness and I’m not black British. I’m Nigerian. I’m African. In Nigeria, because I’ve lived so long out of the country, they don’t consider me Nigerian. I don’t know or live enough in the Nigerian aesthetic—the literary, musical, artist bubble.
Inua Ellams at Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
Your work has a strong focus on immigration. How have the political changes over the past year influenced your work?
I’ve always been writing about this. I didn’t start writing about it because the world became politicised and it became this talking point, this place for debate. All that’s happened, is that my work has become more relevant.
Perhaps the way it is received is different…
Yeah. Because suddenly there are more talking points and more things people want to debate. I’ve always been writing about these things. The show I am currently touring is called An Evening with an Immigrant and I wrote it in 2015. And I only called it that because I didn’t want to call it An Evening with Inua Ellams. What happened is Brexit happened, the Syrian crisis deepened. More people were migrating. Trump came into power. The right-wing conservative governments deepened their roots in England and came out even more staunchly anti-immigrant. All the rhetoric in Europe and Australia turned, which means the show that I created almost three years ago, now, just suddenly, gained political, global ramifications, which wasn’t my intention at all.
“Wherever I have travelled—regardless of language, of culture—in cities, people are wondering about the same things: how to build community, how to slow down, how to play, how to own your urban spaces.”
Tell me about “Midnight Run”, your dusk to dawn London tours. Where did that idea come from?
It started in 2005 when I had just seen a performance somewhere in London in an arts centre and I was waiting for a bus with a friend to go home. But the bus failed to turn up and we got a little bit bored of waiting. We walked the bus route, veering from one location to another, expecting the bus to come at some point, but the bus didn’t come. We lost track of the path and veered off into various directions and we walked for about seven hours. And this was London at night! It was sort of empty, it was devoid of traffic, the terrorism of cars, the tyranny of all of that stuff. It was just us, walking and talking and meandering through the streets of a deserted London. We had so much fun that I began to think of people in London who might be interested in doing this with a larger group of people. That’s how it started. And as time progressed, I started to run poetry writing exercises during the course of the Midnight Run. And then it grew with me inviting artists from various backgrounds to run interactions and interventions during the course of the Midnight Run. I did that for about ten years. Each one is mostly about fun and play, if anything. It’s not about prescribed entertainment. It’s been described as a tour guide. It really isn’t. It would be extremely shabby tour guidance. It’s more about creating a safe space for adults to play again. And to play outdoors. And to be introduced to various art forms for one night only. And to demystify the idea of cities being problematic or dangerous places and to dispel the idea of danger after dark, especially in places like London, which can be a little bit hairy if you don’t know what you’re doing or you don’t have the wits about you.
And you have done them in other cities as well…
We have done quite a few internationally. Mostly London, but others in Paris, in Barcelona, in Madrid, in Berlin, in Perth here in Australia, in Prato, and a few others, which escape me now.
Do you find there are differences between the cities when they are sleeping?
No. The same thing. But maybe in terms of how busy they are. But an inhabitant is always facing the same thing. It all comes back to the ideas of loneliness. How breakneck speed cities are sort of operating. And the need to slow down and just be with complete strangers. And how cities are increasingly hostile to young people and members of older generations. Wherever I have travelled—regardless of language, of culture—in cities, people are wondering about the same things: how to build community, how to slow down, how to play, how to own your urban spaces in cities that are increasing privatised public spaces owned by massive multinational companies.
Inua Ellams will continue to tour around the world through 2017 and 2018. Barbershop Chronicles will play in London, Australia, New Zealand and the United States in 2018. An Evening with an Immigrant will play throughout the UK in 2017 and in the United States in 2018.