Tara Arts, London – until 25 March 2017
Nigeria; London; Dublin; back to London – as a child, Inua Ellams and his family were passed from pillar to post. Living everywhere and belonging nowhere, Ellams discusses the feeling of being lost, afraid and alone in his one-man spoken word show An Evening With An Immigrant. Now he has a UK Visa, Indefinite Leave To Remain (ILR), but twelve years of fighting and appealing The Home Office to achieve this status has left its scars. From middle class in Nigeria to penniless in Peckham, Ellams shares his stories and releases his pent-up fears through spoken word – it’s the cheapest way for him to be free.
Never Forget To Say Thank You is the slogan emblazed on Ellams’ t-shirt. The mantra fits his personality – humble and always assigning praise to others over himself. He has an introverted posture, somewhat uneasy on the stool, and a nervous giggle that fosters an immediate connection to his audience. But then he performs and transforms – animated, artistic and with a glint in his eye. Stories from growing up in a Nigerian boarding school reveal a mischievous child, hellbent on causing trouble and full of pent-up energy. He doles out retribution on the school’s head boy after being bullied alongside his only friend – thumb tacks on the ground and toothpaste in the boy’s eyes while sleeping are evocative of the constant trickeries found in Roald Dahl’s Boy. Ellams has comic book superheroes as his spirit guides, the embarrassed geeks that remove their glasses and transform into saviours of the weak and repressed. His cadence and tone are relaxing and reassuring, painting a detailed, colourful picture with ever more expressive verse.
As the story becomes more dangerous, the family are forced to flee the country. Home has become the mouth of a shark. Ellams’ language however never changes – he speaks of fleeing in the dead of night at gunpoint, facing racism in the foreign streets of London, and death threats in Dublin by Sinn Fein, all with the same serene, lilting verse. It juxtaposes and transforms the atmosphere – the content tells the story, the tone and pace never altering throughout the continuing thread of his life.
The final return to London to fight the courts for residency reveal Ellams’ political edge. The Home Office is peppered with jibes and pot-shots, the current Prime minister verbally held accountable for an administration meant to represent the word of the people. Ellams breaks and is reborn through poetry and theatre – words scribbled on paper with stolen Argos pens become National Theatre productions, Edinburgh Fringe First awards and a visit to Buckingham Palace. All the while, the family are appealing constant visa rejections, until a text is sent by his sister whilst Ellams is teaching a poetry class. Two words are all that is needed – We Won.
A quote by Naguib Mahfouz resonates with Ellams’ story, “Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease”. Ellams and his tightknit family are constantly attempting to escape, to belong. The bond between the parents and the children provide the strength to go on. Ellams emphasises the respect, devotion and love in a poem about a silver wedding anniversary, floating through words of adoration and inspiration. Unfortunately, the story, the attempt to escape, does not end for Ellams – the family are required to re-apply and verify ILR every three years. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the lynchpin of the family’s application for residency, may be withdrawn by UK government. They are still fighting to remain.