Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria, but was forced to move to England with his family when he was just twelve. This show tells the story of that journey, of the hardships he’s faced along the way and the joy that being given the freedom to write has given him.
Ellams is a poet, playwright and storyteller, and this latest show is simply entitled An Evening with an Immigrant. Performed in the Theatre Delicatessen as part of Sheffield’s Migration Matters festival, which runs until 24 June, this performance delves into the heart of what it means to be a migrant in modern Britain. Ellams’ story, which begins in Nigeria and ends in the Moor theatre, is interspersed with anecdotes and lyrical poetry. Poetry that sings his story and illuminates his life.
The audience is made up of about 100 people who have all turned out to see Ellams’ show on an oppressively hot June evening. He enters the theatre in traditional Nigerian dress, waving a wand, and prances towards the stage. Upon arrival, he announces: “This is as kinky as it gets”, before tugging off the robe and revealing dark skinny jeans, Adidas Gazelles and a T-shirt that bears the phrase: “NEVER FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU”. Ellams is the picture of the modern westerner from his trainers to his round, plastic glasses, up to the skull cap, that is, which perches on his head for the entire evening, taking the audience back to his Nigerian heritage.
“He tells of boarding schools in Nigeria, bullying and moving to the UK.”
Much of Ellams’ poetry centres around his friendships and memories from throughout his life, reeling the audience in and involving them in a highly personal account of his life. He tells of boarding schools in Nigeria, bullying and moving to the UK. He remembers to the audience the arduous application process to become a British citizen (still not achieved) and the obstacles he and his family faced in England, then Ireland, and then England again. During one anecdotal recollection of the immigration appeal process, Ellams breaks down. “The decision was no”, he tells his captive audience, who have been made aware that this decision would not only affect his right to stay in the UK, but his relationship status, having been given an ultimatum by a girlfriend. The audience groans, feeling his pain, and, after a few moments of quiet recollection, the show continues.
Some time after, a story follows about being invited to a drinks reception at Buckingham palace. “Two weeks ago they were trying to deport my ass”, Inua quipped, “an’ now I was being invited for champagne and nibbles with the Queen.” The irony is not lost on the supportive Sheffield audience, who laugh aggrievedly along with Ellams.
This performance is a whirlwind of exciting storytelling and emotional poetry. Audience members leave feeling tied to Inua Ellams’ life. He ends the show with a series of pro-immigration statistics, such as the 2.2 billion pounds that immigrants contribute to the UK economy. “I’m not a politician”, he says. An audience member bellows back: “You should be”. And that sums up just how politically charged this show is, how meaningful the personal stories are, and the gravitas Ellams wields. He receives a standing ovation, and well deserved it is.
Migration Matters runs all around Sheffield until June 24, find the programme here.