• Nigerian-born poet Inua Ellams will present his 'An Evening with an Immigrant' show at the Sydney Antidote festival. (Oliver Holms)Source: Oliver Holms
Nigerian-born poet and playwright Inua Ellams talks to SBS about creative accidents, emotional hangovers and the ways that telling stories can unite disparate worlds.
By
Neha Kale

30 Aug 2017 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2017 - 3:10 PM

Inua Ellams still experiences the aftershocks that are a consequence of being torn between two worlds. Along with his family, the Nigerian-born playwright and poet was exiled to London as a 12-year old, only to find that immigration lawyers lost their passports and birth certificates a year later. He’s spent the last decade rendering the everyday indignities and epiphanies of the immigrant experience in poems and plays that channel both the intensity of Lord Byron and the lyricism and rhythm of Tupac Shakur.

“Immigration had a profound effect on me, which I’m till trying to write out of my system,” says Ellams, whose acclaimed one-man play, An Evening with an Immigrant will premiere in Sydney as part of the upcoming Antidote festival and whose voice has a music all its own.

“One of the craziest things is that it’s still hard to build long-term relationships, because there’s a part of me that remembers what it’s like, emotionally, to leave people I love behind.

“I have this flight-or-flight impulse and if I feel like I’m not wanted, instead of digging in and working at things, I just move on. It’s something that I’m still working on." 

Ellams, who started writing poems as a teenager, when his family relocated from London to Dublin — a move that corresponds with some memorable brushes with racism — has a knack for weaving together left-field metaphors, powerful imagery and diary-like fragments torn from contemporary life. 

“One of the craziest things is that it’s still hard to build long-term relationships, because there’s a part of me that remembers what it’s like, emotionally, to leave people I love behind."

Take “Shame is the Cape I Wear”, a nod to cultural expectations (every hero needs a nemesis/this cotton cape casts me as Nigeria’s superman). Or “Guerrilla Garden Writing Poem”, which parallels the ideas sowed by poets to the rogue gardens planted by guerrilla gardeners (The city drenched with new language/the drains are drunk with dreams).

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Then, of course, there’s An Evening with an Immigrant, the play that riffs on his family’s journey from Nigeria to London to Ireland and back to London amid fears of deportation. Ellams wrote it before the rise of Trump and Brexit. He says he could never have predicted how relevant it would become. 

“It was really an accident — I was a playwright and resident at the Soho Theatre in London and came up with this show called An Evening with an Immigrant,” laughs Ellams, who’s taken the play everywhere from Edinburgh and Berlin to Perth and Prato and was once invited for wine with the Queen — despite the fact that his immigration status was less-than-secure. 

“One of the craziest things is that it’s still hard to build long-term relationships, because there’s a part of me that remembers what it’s like, emotionally, to leave people I love behind."

“I wanted to talk about my history and didn’t think I was famous enough to attract an audience using my name! I had friends in the audience and I was referencing stuff that had happened to them in the poems, so we were all laughing. I got such a round of applause. There was a theatre critic in the audience who loved it and a few months later I was asked if I’d consider doing another show. A week before rehearsals started, Brexit happened and Theresa May, became Prime Minister.” He pauses in disbelief. “As I was touring the play, anti-immigrant rhetoric was sweeping across Europe. I’d look at the headlines and have to rewrite the script every time!”

Ellams work is serious but it’s also heavy on humour and comic timing. He has an eye the places — both real and symbolic — that prove that our problems and desires are universal, despite who we are and where we’re from. His latest play, Barber Shop Chronicles, which recently showed at the National Theatre, uses African barbershops in London and around the world expose common threads in black masculinity. For Ellams it’s a chance to show the true breadth of British identity along with the humanising power of art.

“As I was touring the play, anti-immigrant rhetoric was sweeping across Europe. I’d look at the headlines and have to rewrite the script every time!”

“The play came about because a girl I was dating in 2008 gave me a flyer about a mental health program designed to teach barbers the basics of counselling and it struck me because I couldn’t believe that a visit to the barber could get so intense,” says Ellams, who’s looking forward to recharging creatively in the coming months. 

“The idea stayed with me and I travelled to Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana and all the conversations were always about fatherhood, love, sex, money and relationships and it all related to contemporary African masculinity. One of the reasons it works so well in London is that many of these men have never been seen on British stages. So it’s also really about what it means to be British.”

Inua Ellams’ An Evening with an Immigrant shows at the Sydney Opera House as part of Antidote on Sunday September 3, 2017.

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