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An Evening with an Immigrant review at Soho Theatre – ‘potent, personal poetry’

Inua Ellams in An Evening with an Immigrant at Soho Theatre, London

Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright and a performer. He’s also an immigrant. The son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, his family moved to the UK from Nigeria when he was 12 years old. They would then move to Dublin for a time before returning to London.

Though An Evening with an Immigrant is, on one level, a fairly a straightforward poetry reading, it also tells a larger story, of being stateless, unpapered, in limbo. Ellams is a charismatic and engaging performer of his own work. His poems are vivid, picture-rich, hip hop-inflected and alliterative, the words warm as bread, the music of DJ Sid Mercutio pulsing gently underneath.

It took moving to the UK for Ellams to discover what racism was. He was baffled more than anything else when he was called a “nig-nog” by a classmate. But then they moved to Ireland, where he was the only black kid in his school. There they met with more overt racism. Eventually it made the family’s life intolerable, prompting their return to London.

Ellams describes the emotionally and financially draining process of applying for leave to remain in the UK, a frustratingly slow process made slower by administrative mishap and incompetence. Even when his work was being performed at the National Theatre and he was receiving invites to Buckingham Palace his status, his life, was still up in the air.

This is a intensely personal show – Ellams is telling his own story – but it’s also a timely reminder of how ugly some of Theresa May’s policies on immigration were when she was home secretary. It’s an antidote to poisonous rhetoric and a warning about the impact that a clamp=down on immigration will have on the richness and diversity of the arts.

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Potent, personal account of life as an immigrant in the UK combining poetry and music