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June 2019
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I’m from A Long Line Of Troublemakers!

“I’m from a long line of troublemakers,” a poignant and captivating statement by the poet and writer, Inua Ellams. His one man show, The 14th Tale opened at the National Theatre in February 2010, to rave reviews. At 26, Ellams is one of the youngest playwrights to have his work staged at the national Theatre, London 26 year-old London.  An achievement many only ever dream about.

Ellams was born in Jos, Plateau State, and came to London at the age of 11. As a child, he wanted to be a visual artist but the muse of poetry discovered him while he was studying at Dublin. The inspiration stems from his love for language. “I’m inspired by the sense that there is a vague order to everything, you can trace how things happen and that they happen for a reason, and I’m inspired by life, classic writers like William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, John Keats, American poets like Saul Williams and Major Jackson and a whole host of British writers. I’m also inspired by the hip-hop generation – by the cultural and social braggadocio, the beauty and idea that one man is talking about and representing where he is from and strutting down the street with nothing to show for it except his words,” he says. Ellams also counts the likes of Mos Def, Roger Robinson, a poet from the West Indies and Nii Ayikwei Parkes, a Ghanaian writer among his major influences.

Ellams says his work is shaped by his quest to explore light and dark. He said, “I like the idea of the night and the idea of a blanket being dropped over the entire world and the poet is with the torchlight and is about to shine it on something, so I write about the night a lot and in the metaphorical sense. One thing I also play on is music and rhythm and spiritualism; and magical realism comes into my work a lot. I write a lot about humanity and the mortality that comes with it, and vulnerability.”

The 14TH Tale was inspired by Ellams fear of writing about himself. “When I first started writing, I mostly wrote about political things or things that I felt were wrong with the world and classically, wanted to change everything. I wrote about things that were outside of me and the world is a big place; it is easy to write about the world. What is most difficult is to write about yourself and that was what I felt I could not do and what I wanted to try and do with the 14TH tale. The play is a metaphor for that change in literature and voice you have as a writer,” he explains.

The Performances

Ellams, who started public performances in 2004, has graced the stages of some of the UK’s most prestigious venues, from the Albany to The Drum, Tate Modern, Theatre Royal Stratford, Glastonbury, and Latitude Festivals, and The Royal Albert Hall. But he says, “It’s not about venues. Most of the time, I don’t remember venues but I remember the performances and audience. One of the most intimate readings was in a bookshop off the motor way, in a Borders bookshop; I sat down and it was two people and I just read poems to them.

I remember reading poems on the bus, just standing up and reading poetry and the first time I performed the 14TH Tale, it was at the Arcola Theatre and the audience was about 25 per cent my friends and it was a very warm intimate crowd and everything was perfect.

The National Theatre came as a surprise. He recalls the day he got the phone call from his producer that the National had approached them and if he was happy to perform there. “I remember being on the bus and just laughing because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to react. I was so shocked, I called my father and my girlfriend and their phones were engaged. Pretty much everyone who was close to me, was busy and I was just full of excitement and didn’t know what to do. So, I ran to the top of the bus, sat down to contain myself and I tapped a man who was sitting near on his shoulder and said, ‘Hi, can I tell you something?’ And I told him and it turns out his father was a playwright and he grew up in the world of theatre. When I was touring with the 14TH Tale, it showed at one of the venues his father was director for. So he knew how big and important it was and he was able to share in the excitement with me.

“I never dreamt of it, it was far off the scale for me. It was a distant dream that I never ever drove towards and when it came, it was completely out of the blue and shocked me,” he adds.

The Play

The 14TH Tale uses free-flowing narrative with minimal props and vivid descriptions. It employs humour to tell the audience about the life of Ellams; from his days as a natural born mischief maker growing up on the streets of Nigeria to the rooftops of Dublin and his current life in London. However he maintains this is not his whole life but parts of it. The play focuses heavily on aspects of his childhood in Nigeria and time spent at Federal Government College, Odogbolu.  But he says he didn’t set out to make a point about Nigeria, he simply wanted to write about his own internal conflict.  However, if he has to draw similarities between his life in Nigeria, Dublin and London, it would be the “Similarities with society, growing up in Nigeria, I remember at some point having this theory that there are only a certain group and types of people… and then… having the same replicated in London and Dublin. And that reinforced on me that people are people. And this is central to my work, the idea of commonality – that you will meet a Mongolian herdsman somewhere and there will be some commonality between the two of you. So in writing about Nigeria, it is the idea that, despite what is said and the images that are broadcast around the Western world, we are as we are, it is not the idea of the other.”

It is a play, which also forced Ellams to dig deep. He remembers sitting for hours in the dark and laughing at memories as they came flooding, especially the ones of him being chased by his housemaster in boarding school. On his choice of opening line, Ellams explains, “On one hand, that first line was to get the audiences attention, draw them in and even make them laugh.” Nevertheless he asserts, “On the other front, the line is also simply very true. My great-grandfather and my grand-father were troublesome and my father was quite mischievous and troublesome as well. Men who are at odds with authority and don’t like to be controlled in any way. Men, who remain stubborn headed at all cost regardless of whoever or whatever was said. I have had to let go of certain vices, so that I will be more open and avoid distancing people. However, I have managed to stay stubborn in myself. The character trait of the men in my family, knowing what you want to do and going about how to get it down has been passed down to me, so I’m from a long line of troublemakers and in a way; it works as a poetic device.”

Ellams is the author of a poetry collection, The 13 Fairy Negro Tales, which he wrote at 19, a time of self discovery. He is currently working on his new play, ‘Untitled’, which examines relationships and friendships and Nigeria as a nation on the eve of its 50th birthday. “What I’m trying to do is for the play to make a comment on the issue of nature versus nurture and regarding Nigeria, looking at where it has come from to this year it is turning 50. The play is asking questions, what has happened and who are we to blame for what has happened and whose responsibility it is to fix the problem and the things that are wrong? Do we still sit back and blame it on colonial days and West Africa being raped for all its wealth or the corrupt governments; or do we think that what happened in the past has happened and what is now is now?

“And so because of the now, we must stand up and take matters into our own hands. For me, my answer is that what happened in the past is the past and we must leave it there because the viewpoints set in the past will mean we are going to stand there and keep complaining about the past.”

Nigerian vs African Writer

His questioning of Nigeria’s history is not to be confused with his pride at being Nigerian. While he is not a fan of the ‘African writer tag,’ he said, “I do not mind being described as a Nigerian writer, because for me, I like the idea of going into a room with an audience and that is how I’m described and suddenly I’m on a back foot because of the perceptions of Nigerians in the western community. I like the idea of having to prove myself and say yes, I am – but whatever you think or are thinking, or whatever the world has used to describe me, I’m none of that. I’m going to read this poem to you and you are going to love it and there is nothing you can do about it. I like that setting and challenge of it.

“But I don’t like the idea of being called an African writer because it almost feels like a cultural trend, having the African life and it’s insulting. It exoticisms’ the idea of West Africa that we have become fashionable rather than the people on a global table who demand a seat and who are welcome and should be there anyway. Instead, we are being offered as desert and that is what I don’t like about it.”


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