Interview: Inua Ellams talks about his play An Evening With An Immigrant, poetry and the power of art

Inua Ellams, is a Nigerian-born, award-winning poet, playwright, performer and the founder of The Midnight Run. He has published four books of poetry, including his most recent publication #Afterhours. His plays have toured internationally, and have been performed at England’s The National Theatre, the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, and at the Perth International Arts Festival earlier this year.

Ellams’ is returning to Australia this September for a performance of his autobiographical work An Evening With An Immigrant at the inaugural Antidote festival at the Sydney Opera House. We sat down with Ellams’ to have a chat about the work, the reaction to the work from international audiences, as well as his latest poetry collection.

This will be your second trip to Australia this year, so welcome back! How did you enjoy your time here earlier in the year?

It was such a blast, I got to do various things I love, poetry stuff, theatre stuff, workshops for young people and I ran not one, be two Midnight Runs! Perth and its audiences have been kind to me this year. The Midnight Run is a project I started in 2005, where I gather strangers and local artists to explore the streets of a city from 6pm to midnight or 6am.

For those attending the ‘Antidote’ festival, who may not have seen you perform before, what should audiences know about An Evening With An Immigrant?

Nothing, you shouldn’t know anything about it, or about me for that matter. Everything is contained in the story and it is just one of many stories about migration, movement and the reasons why we leave home. Oh, and I read poems and tell stories. Or read stories and tell poems.

You’ve performed An Evening With An Immigrant all around the world, have you noticed any differences in how audiences receive the production and its message?

The audiences have all been similarly shocked at the incredible hurdles my family and I struggled to surmount, and also have been surprised at the immigration policies of their own countries. Spain was so, Italy was so, Ireland, and so were the audiences in Perth.

Italy was incredible though, I spoke to a lady who had brought a group of young African men who had migrated to Italy, who couldn’t speak English or Italian, who where from impoverished background, and thus (she said), though my story seemed inspirational to them, the fact that I grew up a middle-class boarding-school-educated Nigerian meant it would be virtually impossible for them to achieve thing things I have. It crushed me, completely, because I thought if the show isn’t for them and they can’t see themselves in me, who is the show for then? I almost stopped performing the show then.

When I saw you perform the show in Perth earlier in the year, you mentioned Brexit. How has that event influenced recent performances? and how do you see the work operating in a post-Brexit world, and the world of Trump?

The current situation in Great Britain has only heightened the political context in which the show sits, and thus has increased the demand for performances. Every blessed week something else, a new tid-bit of information comes to show to what extent the government misled the public, the negative impacts it will have on our communities and societies. Last week, the foreign secretary admitted we would have to pay the cost of leaving the EU, which runs into the millions, and it also came to the light that our prime minister had grossly exaggerated the number of foreign students who overstayed. It was claimed that 100,000 students overstay each year. The real figure is 4,600… I know right?

Whilst you’re here this time you’re also going to be performing a short run of another work Black T-Shirt Collection, can you tell us a little more about that work, and what audiences might expect?

The story/play is quite a few years old now and is about how the world can impact the lives of two typical Nigerian boys and their simple friendship. It is a story telling piece with a live graphic novel element and I wrote various aspects of myself into the characters; they are of Christian and Muslim backgrounds, they are artistic and enterprising, passionate, and they are both struggling with aspects of black masculinity. There are many themes: homophobia, brotherhood, friendship, corporate social responsibility, fashion, global finance, exploitation, racism, sectarian violence, religious extremism, depression, self-sacrifice and more… but it is simply about two foster brothers, trying to sell t-shirts.

What do you see as the importance of festivals such as ‘Antidote’?

Art is one of the most effective ways of changing a person’s mind. Facts don’t work. Truth, incredibly enough, seems to have become subjective. Any celebration, any festival built on the premise can only do well in the world.

You once described your plays as “failed poems”, has your approach to the two forms remained the same? Or has this changed? or does it change dependent on the work in question?

My plays are still largely that… they begin as an idea for a poem which somewhat fails in its executions and/or grows to exceed the confines of a poem… but all the plays have elements of poetry in them, in structure, tone, rhythm or language.

You’ve recently released a new poetry collection #Afterhours, what was the inspiration behind this new collection?

I wanted to see how “British” and “Irish” I could be whilst remaining Nigerian. I wanted to celebrate poets whose work I admired by imitation (the highest form of flattery or so), but to show my imitations alongside their originals, I wanted to write odes to their poems (and in that odes to those poets), I also wanted to celebrate the end of my childhood. And thus created one of the most difficult projects I have ever begun and completed. I thank the poets for allowing me freedom to reset and localise their poems: Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion, Sarah Maguire, Pascal Petit and so many others.

Poetry, once so highly respected, has become one of the more maligned art forms, but what does poetry mean to you?

I don’t think it has become more maligned, it has just found a new audience, one that thinks language and words are untrustworthy, suspicious and disposable, and who can blame them given the actions of our most influential leaders. To me, poetry is still and has always been the cheapest way to be free, the most democratic art form to access – a striving towards beauty, simplicity, truth, clarity, our better natures and our best selves.

Who are some of the writers and performers who have influenced your work?

Chinua Achebe, Terry Pratchett, Enid Blyton, Aesop, Saul Williams, James Baldwin, Audre Lourde, Kwame Dawes, Nii Parkes, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Roger Robinson to name a few…

And who are some of the new and emerging poets we should all be reading/listening to?

Major Jackson, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, Kayo Chingonyi, Sarah Howe, Yomi Sode, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard, Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo… the list is LONG!

It’s only August, and you’ve already managed to have a huge 2017, with the publication of a new poetry anthology/collection, as well as a new play, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?

I will still be touring An Evening with An Immigrant, and my play Barber Shop Chronicles will return to the National Theatre in London… I have a couple of Midnight Runs planned, but my main priority is to be a better boyfriend to my girlfriend… so sleep more, and binge watch the brilliant things Netflix has had to offer.

Inua Ellams will be performing An Evening With An Immigrant at Antidote Festival in Sydney on September 3rd at 5:30pm. For more information and ticketing visit HERE

Arts Centre Melbourne will also be hosting a run of Black T-Shirt Collection from the 5th-10th September. For more information and ticketing visit HERE

Antidote runs from September 2nd to September 3rd at the Sydney Opera House, and builds upon and replaces the ground-breaking Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The festival covers some of the important topics affecting the world today and brings like minded individuals together to recharge, rethink, take stock, and take action!