For 14 years, Inua Ellams has been searching for a place to belong. Once enjoying an idyllic upbringing in middle-class Nigeria, the Ellams family found themselves victims of extremism, and following their escape to the UK, were then subjected to racism and unjust immigration laws with their lives drastically changed overnight. In An Evening With an Immigrant, Ellams transforms this traumatic tale into a night of evocative storytelling through a blend of beautiful poetry and heart-breaking memories.
Ellams is a charismatic individual, animated and filled with a childlike energy. From the outset, he has total control over his audience as he speaks about his life up until this moment; recalling memories of his childhood, describing him and his family moving to the UK to escape the growing animosity between his family and the Muslim community in Nigeria, and the devastating toll their immigrant status has had on both his family and his own sense of identity over the years. Describing himself as born into a “long line of troublemakers”, Ellams tries to find humour in his misfortunes, however this can only go so far. Some memories are still so raw to Ellams, not yet healed, that he occasionally falters on stage revealing years of vulnerable uncertainty.
There are some technical elements that take away from this otherwise excellent evening. While performed in the more intimate space of Traverse 2, it still feels too big a room for such a personable performance. Having the audience elevated above Ellams gives an inappropriate feel of looking down on him as he shares his story with us. Another element that inhibits Ellams’ work at times is the music. For the most part, Ellams’ playing of music between poems – introduced as he continues with the narrative of his upbringing – creates a soothing and relaxing atmosphere in tune with the light’s warm yellow glow, which makes the audience more receptive to the harrowing moments of Ellams’ tale. Usually, this music plays as a soundtrack to the more upbeat and light-hearted moments in Ellams’ childhood; however, there are moments when this music seeps into the much darker and sinister moments from Ellams’ past. As he discusses leaving Nigeria behind – following death-threats and photos of bodies appearing on their doorstep – the music feels inappropriate.
Nevertheless, it does not take too much away from Ellams’ remarkable story. His story alone would be enough to engage an audience for an hour and a half, so Ellams’ poetry only enriches the experience. His natural lyricism adds such vibrancy to the anecdotes he shares, proving Ellams’ belief that poetry is the “cheapest way to be free”. Embedded into his poetry – particularly the poems of his childhood – are innumerable references to pop culture, nature and corporeal beings. All of this brings a universal tone to his poetry, even in moments when he is highlighting the cultural differences of Nigeria and Britain. It is easy to see how Ellams caught the attention of Fuel Theatre director, Kate McGrath, and the unsurprising success that followed.
Although Ellams reaches the end of his plight with a highly emotional, awe-inspiring conclusion, he does fare a warning for the future. In an outward plea to the audience, he highlights the “rhetoric on immigration”, and “hostile environment” immigrants in the UK are subjected to. He is relentless in highlighting the UK’s responsibility in the refugee and immigration crises, and how backwards some of our laws are. He is aware he may lose the attention of some audience members with this closing speech, however his authoritative voice of experience is one that should not be ignored. The fact that Ellams refers to the UK as “we” is a striking moment showing Ellams’ sense of belonging towards Britain, despite repeatedly being told to leave over the past 14 years.
An Evening With an Immigrant is an entertaining, touching and insightful night realised by an inspiring young man. While Ellams may be still searching for a place to call home, he has certainly found himself a community here tonight.
An Evening With an Immigrant
Photo credit: Oliver Holms