Inua Ellams on his forthcoming Studio show, Black T-shirt Collection
Tell me about Black T-shirt Collection
Black T-shirt Collection was written by accident. I was walking along by the Southbank Centre in London, which is one of my favourite places in the world and I saw a guy walking towards me wearing a black t-shirt and on the front it had all the captains of the Star Trek series so there was Luc Picard, Janeways, Sisco etc so I was just blown away by the t-shirt – I’m a Star Trek fan so I just thought that was the coolest t-shirt in the world. Then I considered what it might feel like having the coolest black t-shirt collection in the world and hence the title, which just stuck. I had no idea what to do with it; I didn’t know if it would become a poem, if it would become an illustration or whatever. And after a while I began to interrogate it and try to write a short story about two friends who set up a black t-shirt collection. Then, when I began to further interrogate the short story I thought about writing from things that I had lived through and that I’d experienced. I chose to set it in Jos and as I began to write it, different aspects of living in Jos, of my childhood, of my personal politics began to feed in to the story in very natural ways. And then I had something and a few characters and the story just came really. I interviewed and talked to a lot of people about what it might mean to own a black t-shirt as a metaphor – what does a black t-shirt stand for? It was almost a collaborative process writing this story as I asked a lot of people about their opinions, and ran thoughts and ideas by them, and the story came forth really. It was entirely by accident, as I said. I sat down by the hills in Scotland and began to write the story of these friends, and then they became foster brothers and one of them suddenly became gay in Nigeria and there are consequences to that, especially in the Muslim North where the story begins.
Why did you want to tell the story?
To a certain extent because I was afraid to. The story kind of came upon me, it was as if I had the pieces to a puzzle, and the only way of figuring out the puzzle was writing the story. I wasn’t sure if the pieces were right, I wasn’t sure what the puzzle might look like. I didn’t necessarily want to tell the story, I wanted to just write about two friends who started a black t-shirt business and the different aspects gave rise to the story. But I didn’t think I could, given the personal and political and social streams that run through the story, I didn’t think I could weave a story this tightly written so it was a challenge for me to do so and so the drive was to take on this challenge. As for the performance of the story. I wanted to do something that wasn’t as physical as the stuff I had done before like The 14th Tale or Untitled, my second play. I wanted just to write a really good short story and focus on the telling rather than the performance of the story, and those are a couple of things I’m experimenting with in Black T-shirt Collection.
Black T-shirt Collection combines poetic, visual/graphic and performance elements – is this the first time you’ve brought all of them together in one show? Why now?
Yes, in this play it is the first time that I have brought all of them together in a show, and why now? Because I could – because I knew I was going to fooling around with stillness and just the lone voice and the performance of the story and I thought something to bounce from, something to counteract that and add more to it would be visual and graphic elements and I’d been thinking about it a lot. The more I work in graphic design and the more I learn about poetry, I learn about things like semiotics, about imagery and the power of imagery. I just returned from Australia and I saw something that really blew me away. It was a play called Jack Charles Versus the Crown and it was an about an aboriginal man. In the play he’s addressing the audience as if they were judge and jury and he’s presenting a case to them. Towards the end of the play, it’s one of the most incredible images I’ve ever seen presented in a play, he writes his prison number on a table, he lifts the table up so that it becomes a gravestone, and he stands behind it, his thin arms slowly swaying from side to side, and then there’s a crown, which comes and rises above him. And before all of this he spits on a British flag and uses it to wipe down the table. So the sequence just meant deeply vast, political and brave things to make in Australia. This was performed by an aboriginal man and firstly to spit on a British flag is quite a statement if you think of the history. To use this to wipe his own gravestone is an incredible statement. Then to lift this up, to stand behind the gravestone with the crown above him which was a symbol of her majesty’s prison service was to crown himself over his own death and to recognise that what has tormented him his whole life will carry him into death. It was just quite incredible. So I’ve been thinking critically about imagery and how to use it to tell a sub story and give a deeper understanding of the work that I create. And it just felt right to do it here, because of the stillness and fooling around within the play, just to lift things up.
How would you describe the general tenor of your writing? What leads you to write?
I’m influenced a lot by philosophy but in an every day and grounded sense. When I begin to contemplate stuff like that I try to relate it to an everyday sense of belonging and life, and generally these are the things that give rise to my writing. I’m influenced a lot by wonder, by happenstances , by a vague order to things, and also by things that move me. I don’t really write political poems, I used to when I was young but these days I write when I’m moved to write solely. When I read my writings I make sure that the emotions that give rise to that sing out, which is when the poems that I create become very performative. Questions about humanity and questions where the mind crosses matter and how I could give rise to both things in a piece of text and make them reflect each other and seem like it would be impossible to disentangle one from the other.
How did your experience with Bristol Ferment help to develop the show?
It was great. It was great to test out the story, which was so raw then – I hadn’t even memorised the end and I just read it from my ipad. It was great to test it our there and hear what it sounds like to other people, to gauge their reactions and the fact that no one fell asleep meant a lot because it proved that the story was gripping enough and alive enough to them to sit with it. Because it was just a pure performance, there was no music, no sound, my director sat and read the stage directions out as I was reading. It was just very raw and it was great, it gave me so much more confidence in the writing and perfecting the text and the rhythm of it. It was gorgeous.
How do you hope people will react?
Well, I have no idea. Absolutely none whatsoever. I set out to write, I guess, a tragedy (I don’t know if I should give that away right now). But I set out to write something that didn’t have a happy resolution as did The 14th Tale and Untitled. My challenge to myself was to see if I could do that and be at peace with myself, which I think I am. But one of the beautiful things of working in the performance of literature, in performance poetry, in the performance of short stories or live literature is the instant reaction of the audience – to see that what you have created has really settled within them and moved them to a certain degree, even if it’s just one inch to the left – you just moved your heart one inch to the left. And just to see an understanding and an appreciation of what you have shared is one of the rushes, one of the things that keeps me returning to the stage. I think eventually that might wane because people age and require different things but for Black T-shirt Collection I don’t know, I don’t want to think about how they might react in case it isn’t what I really want and then I might walk away feeling disappointed. I just hope they like the story, that’s all. I hope they walk away and think ‘that’s a good story’ – that is good enough for me.
Just come and expect the world to be suspended for a little bit, and come willing to suspend reality.