While poet, artist and playwright Inua Ellams has been branded a spoken word artist, this is not a title he himself is fond of. “Spoken word never appealed to me, and sometimes it still doesn’t”. Instead, he says, “I set out to write poetry, and I’m a great performer of my work, and then it becomes labelled as spoken word”.
The performative nature of his poetry is something inherent in Ellams’ writing. “I write with a lot of musicality, so I write with drama and theatricality, and it becomes a strong poetic performance because it lends itself quite constantly to the stage”. He prefers reading his poems to an audience to having them set on the page, as “to write is to take it upon fate I think, and you just hope that when it is read someone understands where you’re coming from”. Compared with this, “I guess one of the great things about spoken word or the performance of poetry is the instant gratification.”
This led organically to the move to the theatre. “It was a very natural progression, it made sense, there were no qualms”. Part of this change of mediums was to do with expression: “I realised that writing this on a piece of paper with one voice would not tell enough of a truth. It was better served by two or three different voices – then I moved into theatre”. However, the transfer was also to do with audience response. Ellams explains, ”running away from the spoken word scene was why I moved into theatre.”
One occasion in particular served to cement Ellams’ decision to move away from spoken word. “I had a terrible, terrible experience at Glastonbury, where the audience were f*cked and drunk or too high, and the kids were wasted as much as the parents were in the audience. And I just thought that this is not conducive to why I write poetry and the amount of time I spend crafting pieces of work”. But with theatre, “people come expecting just to sit down and listen”. However, while moving on to theatre, his plays still have their foundations in poetry as, “what appeals to me is poetry, and that is where most of my plays come from”. This is no less true for Ellams’ latest theatrical venture, Knight Watch.
Split into four sections, the play moves from musical prose – “a kind of free verse” – to classical, ballad form, to hip hop, before returning to free verse. This mix of styles comes from what Ellams himself is inspired by, and he explains that “this story is also about my relationship with poetry and hip hop – I’m hugely influenced by hip hop culture, at the same time I’m influenced by Romantic poetry, particularly by John Keats”. While hip hop might seem a far cry from Keats, by combining the two, “I try to show how classical poetry gave rise to hip hop”.
This blurring of the boundaries between poetry and rap is furthered by the live music that is part of the performance. “The musicians are called Zashiki Warashi, and they’re a duo of flute and drums. I very much wrote Knight Watch with them in mind”. Aside from working beautifully with verse, the music is also used to move the story. “Mikey plays the flute, and he really sets the tone, and not just the emotional tone but the character tone of the second part of Knight Watch… the third section is very much the hip hop section, and that’s where the drums really come into play, and the drum again really creates a lot of fire, lots of tension”.
While for some the prospect of writing a play almost entirely in verse might seem daunting, for Ellams it was old hat. “I’ve always done this so for me it isn’t different – it’s all I know really”. However, for an audience used to seeing plays in standard prose, the experience might be an interesting change. “I think for some it will be easier to listen to, for others it might be more taxing… and this is just purely to do with whether they are more familiar with poetic writing”. Generally, Ellams has had a positive reaction from audiences: “I was most nervous about the third section – the hip hop section. I thought I might lose audiences then. But that hasn’t happened which is great, especially when I see older generations moving in to the third section and just accepting it as a true form of communication, rather than recoiling from it like most people of a certain age or class do these days”.
Aside from the poetry, Ellams is adamant that Knight Watch can deliver the full theatrical experience. “There’s drama, there are multiple characters, there’s suspense, there’s everything – there’s revolution, there’s climax”. And the premise of the play? “It’s quite simply about a guy called Michael, who was a carpenter who lives in a world without wood, so instantly he is redundant and this romantic figure who is made fun of, who is an outcast”. While exploring the poetical form, the play also deals with bigger issues, and “it was also a way of engaging the whole post-code thing which exists in parts of London, where if you’re from one place you can’t move into another place”. This problem is something Ellams personally feels strongly about: “I’m from the Hausa tribe of Nigeria, and my people are just cattle herders and nomads – so being able to travel freely is in my blood. And the idea of living in a place where that was frowned upon by young people just curled my skin a little bit”. As well as this, “It’s about gang warfare and tribalism… It’s also about what I guess it means to be young and to live and to grow in the land of your tribe and figure out who you are, and how to relate to the people who are different to you”.
Environmental issues are at the forefront of the play, and the way Ellams has chosen to incorporate these arises from an interesting source. He explains how, around the time of working on Knight Watch, he began watching the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. In this show, the human characters are divided into four tribes, each controlling a specific element. “I really really liked this cartoon, and began to infuse the story of Knight Watch with that. So Knight Watch is currently divided into four sections – the first section is earth, the second is wind, the third is fire, and the fourth is water. For me the story is about environmental issues, it’s about global warming it’s about pollution and how human beings live here.” This also ties in with his interest in Romantic poetry, as “John Keats was always interested in environmental issues – he famously sought to reconcile man with nature, which is why he wrote so much with the natural world in mind. One of the things I try to do when I write is find a balance between the earth and the destruction of the natural world around us”.
With all these major issues addressed in the play, what does Ellams hope to achieve with it all? “I would say awareness, and I’d also like to say change, but I say change hesitantly because poetry can’t really change the world. And I’m not sure that art can – I’m not sure that that should be art’s function. All art can do is to hold an unshaking mirror in front of an audience, in front of the change makers, and say this is who you are, this is what you do, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do”. However, his play is far from being polemic. Instead, “whenever I write a story, I try to make it as character based as possible, and make the characters as human as possible, and trust that subsequently as the world happens to these characters the world will happen to the audience. If they accept the characters then they’ll accept the themes”. With Knight Watch, Ellams hopes to show his audience what we have to deal with in the world today, “and if that sparks a change then I am overjoyed and I am happy with that.”
Knight Watch is currently touring the UK and will visit The Albany, Deptford, on 21st September 2012. For tickets and more information, visit www.fueltheatre.com/projects/knight-watch or www.albany.org.uk.
Image credit: Inua Ellams and Fuel Theatre