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Inua Ellams: ‘I’m bracing myself for a showdown with UKIP’

Inua Ellams in An Evening With an Immigrant. Photo: Oliver Holms

Poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams is touring An Evening With an Immigrant while working on Barber Shop Chronicles, his third show for the National Theatre. He tells Catherine Love about the autobiographical inspiration for his work, which engages audiences nationwide with its topical subject material.

Your shows often draw on your own experiences. Why is it important to include autobiographical elements in your work?

I work primarily as a poet, and most poetry begins with the personal. It’s like rap. When you’re writing and creating text of that sort there isn’t an instrument to hide behind – it’s just your voice. There’s this assumption that the text is about the person who’s writing it. I think it’s for those reasons that we don’t really cover hip-hop songs in the same way we cover ballads. So when it comes to creating my work, I’m aware of these assumptions and, rather than trying to fight against them, I work within them.

Do different performance contexts shift how you think about the show’s content?

It depends on the nature of the work. I’m working on a play at the National Theatre called Barber Shop Chronicles. Initially that started out as an attempt to locate a poetry project in a barber shop, but no one was going to fund it. I’d met such interesting characters that their voices began to grow in my head, and I realised that I could tell a greater truth with a plethora of voices rather than with my own. In the first draft, I was a character in the play, but it felt like I was getting in the way. I had to take myself out of the play for the truths and the world views that I saw to come centre stage.

Before Barber Shop Chronicles opens, you’re touring An Evening With an Immigrant. What was the initial impulse behind that show and how has it changed since you first wrote and performed it?

It was entirely accidental. In 2015 I was a resident artist at Soho Theatre, where I was told I could have a night to try something out. I decided to string together some poems and mildly witty banter. I called it An Evening With an Immigrant because I didn’t want to call it An Evening With Inua Ellams – it just seemed so grandiose and egotistical. The show was so scratchy and so scattered that I was changing poems two minutes before the lights went up.

The following day, someone had written a review of it. They thought that it was a powerful commentary on contemporary immigration issues and described it as some of the most honest and powerful theatre that they had seen. I thought, “wow”, because all I’d done was sit on a bar stool on stage.

A year passed and immigration became a big news story. Soho Theatre really liked the show and thought that I could do something that could really fit. The week before the show opened, the EU referendum happened and immigration was splashed across the news headlines. It was a really intense period. Every time I sat down with my DJ, who created the music for the show, I had to change the script all over again because of something the Tories had said or some new law that had just been passed. It made the show seem so timely.

Has the response to the show changed as you’ve been touring it?

Definitely. I think more people are interested in the topic now and, depending on where I am, I get various responses. Generally I’ve had good responses, but the reasons why people come to the show are very interesting. The last show I did was in Ipswich and a group of young people came. One of them said she just believed everything she’d read in the headlines about how easy it was for immigrants to come into the country and get social housing and all the ridiculous things the Daily Mail has pumped into the world. For her it was like a lecture with a small ‘l’ – about the truth of the immigration system in this country and how confusing and difficult it is.

When I consider the places the show is going to, I try to guess the demographic of the inhabitants and what they might be bringing to my show, just to prepare myself for those spaces. For the show in Margate, I know 29 Ukip councillors have been invited, so I’m bracing myself. I’m learning more about England the more I tour the show, but also about the political and social ramifications of taking the show into communities’ own spaces.

Barber Shop Chronicles will be your third show at the National Theatre. What does it mean to have that platform for your work?

It legitimises my work. I started writing because there was nothing else I could do: I couldn’t go to university and I couldn’t really learn a professional trade. I started writing before I had the right to live and work in the country. Paper was readily available, so I wrote out of desperation. I began to trap all the nakedness and angst of that in poetry. I was drawn to poetry more than to theatre because it was just me: I could just stand on stage and read it to people.

When The 14th Tale [Ellams’ 2009 work] transferred to the National, I was suddenly thrown into the spotlight and into a community that completely welcomed me.

Barber Shop Chronicles is, to a certain extent, the culmination of everything that I have discovered about my identity – or lack of it. I’ve been having these conversations with myself for years and am looking forward to it being out there so I don’t have to have them with myself again. Through its links with various communities, the National Theatre is going to try to get members of those communities to come and see themselves on stage. The National Theatre will do for them what they did for me, which is to say: “You’re welcome here.” In an age of anti-immigration rhetoric, that is deeply important.

CV: Inua Ellams

Born: 1984, Nigeria
Training: None
Career highlights The 14th Tale, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh (2009), Untitled, Soho Theatre (2010), Black T-Shirt Collection, National Theatre (2012), Cape, Unicorn Theatre (2013), The Long Song Goodbye, Battersea Arts Centre (2014)
Awards: Edinburgh Fringe First for The 14th Tale (2009)
Agent: None

Barber Shop Chronicles runs at the National Theatre from May 30 to July 8, then at West Yorkshire Playhouse from July 2 to 28

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