Black T-Shirt Collection (Theatre Review)
Who would have thought being a T-shirt entrepreneur has the power to evoke a multitude of emotions the way performance poet, Inua Ellams brought it to the fore in his latest theatre offering, Black T-Shirt Collection (BTSC).
Currently showing at the Cottesloe, National Theatre,London, it is a narrative of vivid poetic artistry, Ellams takes us on a journey with Matthew and Muhammed, foster brothers brought together by the act of their mother after her husband; Musaddiq Zango is killed by a mob in an act of religious violence. She bans religion in her house and decides to foster a child from a children’s home by the name of Matthew. A home with kids from two of Nigeria’s biggest religion, Islam and Christianity, there is bound to be some friction. At least that is what a mind used to hearing the negative news about religious conflict in Nigeria may assume.
Ironically, the case is the reverse with the brothers, who are very different to each other – Matthew is the quiet one. “A typical artist, t-shirt designer, all pencils and pens; Muhammed is charismatic, the salesman,” as described by Ellams. Together, they start a T-shirt venture which soon gains momentum with words like ‘Dear Shell, Water No get Enemy’, appealing to celebrities and children alike, and their business expands from the streets of Jos, Nigeria to China, where the t-shirts are manufactured. However, there is a BUT, and that but is the trouble that brings face-to-face with the harsh reality of Nigeria, when a journalist makes it his business to tell the world that Muhammed. It is a discovery that sets them on a journey from Nigeria to the street of Cairo to London and finally, to China. It is a journey high and low moments and painful experiences.
Ellams touches on serious subjects that Nigeria currently deals with, from acts of violence and terrorism to the fact that same sex relationships is heavily frowned upon as well as the relationship between siblings and the ones we have with the society we find ourselves at any given time. As an artist, Ellams use of monologue is powerful because you have no distraction or need for other characters and can focus on your subject, the poet as he delivers intense lines of raw emotions and action on stage. As a poet, this is a relevant offering which uses poetry and role playing by the actor where his various characters are concerned, to address social issues in a narrative that would otherwise be lost if it is read to an audience from a book. His ability to marry potent words that gives a rhythmical lyricism to his craft demonstrates how Ellams has grown since his first outing at the national with Untitled. His creativity as a visual artist also shines through with backdrops that interpret his words and bring a sense of place to his story. If the Black T-Shirt Collection falls short on anything, it is the fact that sometimes, he did not bring the same depth to some of his characters you would have liked to know a little more about, like the mother the same way he let us in on Matthew and Muhammed’s characters. Nevertheless, Ellams is a master storyteller, who is armed with an eloquent delivery and creates vivid mental images with his words as he takes you on a journey with his characters.
The Black T-Shirt Collection runs until 24 April at the National.