Feature: Inua Ellams on masculinity, home, displacement and identity

Inua Ellams updates the script of An Evening with an Immigrant as global change occurs. “I have to keep the text new so it always feels current,” Ellams says. Given the state of global immigration policy today, the details of his play are changing constantly.

The award-winning poet, playwright and performer is on a roll at the moment. As well as An Evening with an Immigrant, which is touring the UK until July, another of his plays, Barbershop Chronicles, a co-production with Fuel and West Yorkshire Playhouse, is being produced at The National Theatre and Ellams is also working on a BBC mini-series and a play for Tricycle Theatre about basketball, “my other love.”

Ellams is accustomed to using his own life as a springboard for storytelling, and An Evening with an Immigrant reflects on his own position, scattering his text with poems, anecdotes and humour. It picks up the thread he first introduced in his first play, The 14th Tale, where he shared his experience of moving from Nigeria to Ireland, furthering his exploration of displacement. And the regular updating of the script is crucial, he says, to being able to keep the raw feeling to his words, despite the lengthy tour.

“I try to give a live representation of the act of writing. That always requires me to stay in the present, otherwise it just feels weird and formulaic, which poetry can never really be,” he explains.

The theme of home is recurring in Ellams’ work because, he says, “I don’t feel like I have one.” Born in Nigeria to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Ellams moved to London aged 12. He spent three years in Ireland before returning to London to work as a writer and graphic designer. He describes his state of impermanence as “floating” and admits, “now and then there’s a longing to be rooted.”

His analysis of his own life through his writing helps him understand his freeform experience of identity, and he is attracted to poets and storytellers who also engage with a feeling of rootlessness. He is particularly taken by the writing of Ladan Osman, Caleb Femi and Safia Elhillo. Much of the poetry that inspires him is not overtly political, he explains, “but about the poets and their struggles against impossible and invisible demons.”

Ellams is a natural poet. The way he speaks is lyrical. He explains the feeling of lacking a physical place like a cloud. “Sometimes I’m able to shine a light through it,” he says, “then in the times I wallow in it, I enjoy these other poets who have done the same thing. The darkness doesn’t feel so dark.”

Barbershop Chronicles originated from a conversation with someone Ellams was dating several years ago. She told him about a project to teach barbers the very basics in counselling, “so they’d know how to handle things that came out in conversations with their clients.” Like much of his work, Ellams says, it began as an idea for a poem, and slowly developed into a larger project. He has since travelled the world, stopping in barbershops to record conversations. Notes from a travel diary he kept have created an insightful essay published in Nikesh Shukla’s bestselling book The Good Immigrant. Barbershop Chronicles reveals the fascinating links Ellams has drawn between attitudes towards masculinity in different countries, all through clippers and casual conversations.

Set across five African cities, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra, and in London, the play explores the specific role of barber shops in African communities, where men go to sit for haircuts, but also to talk and often to listen. Part-confession box, part-soapbox, Ellam warmly reveals them as sources of unofficial advice and places to keep in touch with the world.

Ellams’ work opens up conversations around often neglected or misunderstood areas – masculinity, immigration, displacement and identity. But how impactful does he consider his work to be? He is honest in his reply: “I just don’t know yet.”

“Unfortunately art is still largely elitist in this country, and people who have access to the arts tend to be liberal and well-educated, and they tend to live in urban centres therefore they have closer contact to immigrants,” he explains.

Is it a case of preaching to the converted? Ellams admits he sometimes worries that he is. “With Immigrant, that is definitely the case sometimes. I have to ask myself why are people coming to a show if they are already politically aligned? What are they taking from it?” he says.

However he has settled on an answer that keeps him telling his stories. This is the hope that he is “deepening the assured experience.” Though it might only serve to confirm someone’s political stance, his work could be used to provide stronger ground on which to argue with others. “Also,” he says, “younger people who spend time in the city centres then go back to members of their families on the outskirts or people who would normally be embarrassed to talk to about their immigration stance. They can answer from a stronger place as well.” Ellams may preach to the choir, but the choir can use the songs to spread his message.

He is still hopeful of art’s power. “I think art can do what it always has done, “he concludes, “which is put a human face on any issues, and try and do so as objectively as possible.” He holds onto the hope that art might be able to nullify right-wing rhetoric, though he adds, “maybe it’s just me being an endless optimist, thinking that if we show people something in our hearts, that can give way to understanding.”

Just before he runs off to play basketball, Ellams offers a suggestion that validates and values art. Poetry and performance may not change global policy, and certainly not overnight. But he believes art has the power to make small changes in individuals. “Only in small, incremental ways but that is the only way it will last.” The most powerful poems, he says, “tend to haunt us and echo after the last line. The most powerful stories resonate beyond the curtains, beyond the lights.” Change is slow, but it is possible. “For stories to be digested and understood, that takes time.”

An Evening With an Immigrant tours various venues across the UK until July.

Barbershop Chronicles opens at the National Theatre from May 30, and runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from July 12-29.

Image: Oliver Holms