The first time I ever experienced live poetry was when a good friend Viv took me as her plus one to one of the Bristol Old Vic’s ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ poetry slam evenings. Before the show I was unconvinced that it would be for me. Afterwards, I was a total convert to this medium of performance. The poems tonight at The Cube Microplex in Bristol were being performed by Inua Ellams, an award-winning poet, playwright and founder of the Midnight Run – an international, arts-filled, night-time urban walking experience. ‘An Evening with an Immigrant’ is an autobiographical piece of storytelling that is being performed as part of the Tobacco factory Theatres BEYOND off-site season.
Ellams relates his childhood growing up in Nigeria with a Christian mother and a Muslim father. The union between his parents was never accepted by their families or their community. The area they lived in is now considered to be Boko Haram territory, and the family fled to the UK in 1992 when Ellams was 12 after the situation became too dangerous for them to stay. As the evening unfolds, we hear the stories of his youth, his search for belonging in the various communities he lands in, even how he had to have the concept of racism explained to him by a schoolmate, as this was something he simply had never encountered in his native Nigeria. The stories and poems are poignant, often funny, sometimes sad but ultimately uplifting as we see just how far a person can come and what they can achieve in the face of adversity.
Ellams is an incredible wordsmith, and the evening was an absolute joy to witness, even if the subject matter was speaking of the struggles at the heart of life for him and his family. His poems are lyrical; you can hear the hip-hop influences from his youth behind them and they conjured some exquisite visual worlds for me. I didn’t just ‘hear’ about his life, his words allowed me to see it like a film running through my head. Ellams crafts a story beautifully. It would be all too easy for the an evening about a family escaping persecution only to discover a different kind of prejudice in the place that is supposed to be their haven to leave you feeling sad and depressed. I left this evening feeling uplifted by the positivity that Ellams expels from every pore. However, this is is a show where I wanted those who sit in positions of power, the policy makers and the lawyers to have been present for this potent, engaging and intensely personal story. This is a real life story of how immigration laws can impact so harshly on the lives, loves, communities and connections of people in this country right now. I wanted these people in positions of power to face him, and then tell this warm, articulate, funny and incredibly talented man why his life and need for connection and belonging is seemingly so unimportant to them. Ellams urges us at the end of the show to understand that there is so much misinformation about the impact of immigration in our country. Without drama or any feeling of finger pointing, he reflects on the policies implemented by Theresa May in her time as Home Secretary that seek to make the UK a more ‘hostile’ place for immigrants and asylum seekers. An almost palpable shudder goes around the auditorium at the Cube; we all know who is now sitting in the highest seat of power in the UK. The slow and steady erosion of the Human Rights Act puts his very existence as an citizen here making an important contribution to the arts at risk. Inua Ellams does not know whether he will be able to keep on living in this country in the long term, even though his whole life is here now. We are all humans, we all have our talents, it is just that some of us are luckier than others about where we are born and the privileges this affords us.
An evening with an Immigrant’ is on tonight at The Cube Microplex, and you can get tickets from the Tobacco Factory Theatres website, you should definitely see it if you can.
Review by Karen Blake