“So this is like… really budget”, poet and playwright Inua Ellams begins, after dancing on stage to Nigerian music. “It can’t really be called a theatre production”, he continues to joke, ever humble and personable. The audience laughs heartily.
The stage of the Tara Arts theatre in which ‘An Evening with an Immigrant’ was being performed on the 24th and 25th March was indeed rather bare, featuring only a stool, a bookstand and a lone speaker for utility. For decoration was but a wheeled suitcase, to symbolise the process of moving from one place to another, and a single item of Nigerian attire, representing Ellams’ country of origin. This minimalism, whether deliberate or due to limited budget, is ultimately inconsequential – Ellams’ recounting of his experiences of migration by means of stunning poetry and hilarious, poignant and deeply personal anecdotes were more than sufficient to retain the full attention of the audience. By the end of the play, the audience would have a real, first-name insight into Inua Ellams himself, as well as his best friend from boarding school in Nigeria, and the bullies in each of the schools he was to subsequently attend.
Ellams’ strikingly honest story begins in Northern Nigeria, his beloved home from where he and his family fled persecution from members of the local community who disapproved of his father’s eventual disillusionment with Islam. His positive description of Nigeria as ‘idyllic’ and ‘gorgeous’, however, together with his account of experiencing downwards social mobility as a result of moving to London, dispel the popular myths that the countries from which people migrate are insufferable or invariably poor, and that people migrate to receive ‘free money’ from over-generous Western governments. He proceeds to trace his route through London, to Dublin, then back to London, illustrating the unnecessarily lengthy and complicated routes that those who migrate often have to take in order to bypass strenuous and inhibiting immigration procedures.
A broad range of themes are explored in Ellams’ poems and narrative. He challenges performative, hyper-masculinity when he observes the ‘dampness’ in his friends’ eyes during a fight. He explores displacement and ‘in-betweenness’, when he cites his multiple affinities: with both the Scorpio and Libra star signs, by virtue of being born on October 23rd, or with Nigeria, Ireland and England simultaneously, for example. The narrative is strung together with captivating, beautifully articulated poems given clever titles such as ‘Ash Skinned’ and ‘Ghetto Van Gogh’. Likening himself to a ‘black Matilda’, describing the numerous lizards that frequented his home in Nigeria as ‘long-tailed legions’ and his titling of Ireland ‘the Nigeria of the West’ are examples of his wit and hilarity, which refreshingly did not once rely on the clichéd, ridiculing of African accents. Of all the very good poems performed, it was ‘Leather Comets’ which was the most gripping and elaborate, in which he uses extended metaphors of fire to recount in detail his experience of surmounting overt racism when playing basketball in Ireland to achieve a glorious victory.
The most talented artists hone in on micro-interactions and derive concepts from seemingly mundane occurrences – in the best cases, they use these to make larger social critiques. Ellams certainly demonstrates this ability. He also exhibits another vital characteristic of talented and impactful spokespeople: his critique is direct, unrelenting and incisive, yet widely relatable and scarcely alienating – even when he cites the sobering statistic in a room populated mostly by white people that England pillaged and destroyed roughly 88% of the world. Aside from his frank revelation that his own immigration status in the UK remains somewhat tentative, it is this stage of the evening that is its unlikely climax – Ellams unsuspectingly begins an impassioned call to action, transcending the roles of poet and playwright to become activist and lecturer. He speaks of the huge expense of the bureaucratic procedures that migrants must undergo, confounds the common knowledge that England is ‘overcrowded’ with the statistic that only 2.2% of its land is built on and insightfully asserts that ‘England itself is but a cartography of migration’.
Ellams performs one final poem, before closing: “Thank you for spending an evening with an immigrant”, he finishes, a perfect end note for the subsequent readings from and discussion of ‘The Good Immigrant’ book, which was to follow.
If a stripped back, minimalistic production by Inua Ellams’ can be this rich and exploratory, then we all the more look forward to attending his ‘Barbershop Chronicles’ which will be playing at the National Theatre between 30 May – 8 July 2017.