Barber Shop Chronicles playwright stages next play at The Kiln
PUBLISHED: 17:19 25 April 2019
Inua Ellams' Half God of Rainfall marries Greek and Yoruba myths to weave a story of a mother and her demi-God son with a superhuman power to play basketball
Inua Ellams has long been surprising audiences with his vividly imaginative writing.
From the Midnight Runs, which saw him thrust poems into the hands of strangers then vanish before they read them, to Barber Shop Chronicles, which stages conversations between African men across six cities in one day, the Nigerian-born poet and performer has been hailed as an exciting voice.
Yet in the autobiographical An Evening with An Immigrant, he tells how he's been invited to Buckingham Palace and heaped with awards, while waiting 14 years to secure his immigration status, which he must renew every three years.
The 34-year-old's latest play Half God of Rainfall is no less inventive or politically minded. When beautiful Modupe draws the unwanted attention of the Greek and Yoruba Gods, she has a half Nigerian, half Olympian son with a superpower to play basketball.
If Barber Shop Chronicles charted the pitfalls of masculinity, then Half God, which travels from a tiny Nigerian village to “the furthest reaches of the solar system,” highlights the impact of sexual violence on women.
“It's to start these conversations for men to think about how there is a cycle of violence, how we have to take responsibility for our actions and how male aggression colonises and sidelines the stories of women who are the victims of sexual violence,” he says.
“Zeus kills his own father to become king of the Gods, even in his conception there is violence. Violence begets violence.
“It's a huge bigass epic story about female solidarity, a patriarchal system, basketball and the legacy of colonialism which no-one really talks about in this country,” he adds.
Ellams developed his love of basketball after his family had to leave their middle-class life in Nigeria. He ended up at Holland Park school aged 12.
“There was a girl I had a crush on and I realised the only way to get into her line of vision was to get the ball and bounce it enthusiastically.
“As a kid I loved the game's athleticism it's reliance on agility and speed. It felt like watching small miracles each time you threw a ball into a hoop.”
When the family's papers got lost, they had to move to Ireland for three years, where the kids assumed he would be a natural athlete with an encyclopaedic knowledge of hip-hop culture.
“I was the only black boy in the entire school, it was difficult trying to fit in, I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
He also went from being a resilient basketball defender to developing asthma.
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“My body stopped responding, it was betraying my soul and I stopped playing for a decade. Demi in the play has this incredible athleticism and was able to do things that I could never do.
“I started writing to imagine myself with superhuman abilities.”
Ellams has always used writing and literature to springboard himself out of life's limitations.
At school he found freedom in library books and poetry, now he channels any anger he might feel about racism or the iniquities of the immigration system, into art.
“I realised the bigger comment I could make on power, masculinity gender violence and politics was through writing,” he says..
Certainly his own immigrant story which toured in the middle of the “Brexit frenzy” has foregrounded the chequered history of emigration in this country.
And Barber Shop Chronicles sprang from his journey from Nigeria where the most of the people looked like him, to England or Ireland where he was “black first rather than just a man who is black”.
“After living in the Uk for almost 20 years I had digested the negative sterotypes about African men. Going back to Nigeria travelling to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa to meet those men and discover who they were I discovered a way of being that I had forgotten and I stuck that on stage.
“It was trying to recontextualise South Africa, Nigeria, communities where most of the people are black and men are masculine beings with the same set of emotions of any man.”
Black men he says have to fight for spaces where they can be themselves, such as the barber shop, where they can talk and share stories.
“I am showing men as they are in a safe space where they can be vulnerable. Most men would be like that if we didn't step out into a world that demands of us to be macho, to have to put on a tough skin which a lot of black men have to to live in a world that looks hostile to them.”
As to his poetic, lyrical way of telling stories Ellams says it stems from his lived experience.
“I'm not interested in traditional forms, I am not traditional in any of the spaces I move in, I have always been an outsider - among the Nigerian community I am a foreigner,
Here I have been an immigrant for 23 years. I could not feel British and my lack of a passport told me so.
“Now with the Home Secretary revoking passports, even if you get a British passport it means nothing if it can be stripped from me.
“I feel the same with the theatre world. I have this flight or fight sensation.”
Half God of Rainfall at The Kiln Theatre Kilburn High Road from April 25 to May 16 kilntheatre.com
Barber Shop Chronicles runs at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm from July 18 to August 24 roundhouse.org.uk