Writer, Performer and Director: Inua Ellams
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
At the beginning of the night, Inua Ellams explains that An Evening With An Immigrant is more of a conversation than a performance, and warns his audience that it contains a fair amount of navel-gazing. Modesty? Perhaps. Selling himself short? Definitely.
Ellams is an established playwright and poet, having won an Edinburgh Fringe First for his play The 14th Tale, and he intersperses his stories and anecdotes with many of his own poems. His journey begins with his childhood in Nigeria, born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, a dichotomy that proved too much for many in their community, forcing his family to flee to England, Ireland, and then back to England again in their quest for somewhere where they could be safe and, most importantly, feel like they belong.
It’s a notion that clearly still weighs heavily on Ellams’ mind. His story is unfinished. Even now, 19 years later,the threat of potential deportation hangs over him, his three sisters, his mother, and father, who are all still required to reapply for temporary residency every three years. This for the young man whose work has played at the National Theatre in London, and earned him an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace.
For the full 90 minutes (with a short interval) Ellams sits on a stool on stage, with just a microphone and a musical soundtrack, which he controls himself, for company. Along the way, there is humour and heartbreak, and though it takes a while to get going – he wasn’t completely lying about the navel-gazing – there is a poignant structure to it all. It’s more than just a conversation. Lyrical and eloquent, Ellams is a master at summing up his life and feelings in prose.
It’s disappointing that he chooses to skip over completely how he went from being a young man in his early twenties attending poetry readings in London, to having his first book published, a leap that seems a little too large not to warrant a brief explanation given his family going from well-respected, hard-working citizens in Nigeria to living in poverty, largely unable to work due to their status, in the UK.
He touches briefly on the darkness into which he descended when things were at their lowest, but there’s no evidence of this in his manner. Ellams is softly-spoken, humble, hugely articulate. He’s silly as well. Funny too. But although he insists that he’s “just a poet”, the piece is unquestionably political, unafraid to lay down the facts about the way in which this country treats immigrants and their human rights.
In a post-Brexit-vote-Britain, with “foreigners” being blamed for so much that’s gone wrong, it’s more important than ever that every voice, every face, every culture that makes up our society is heard. Theatre is just one of the many ways in which this could, and should be done, and Inua Ellams is paving the way.
Runs until 13 October 2016 | Image: Contributed