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The word ‘immigrant’ is used to make people fear the unknown

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Inua Ellams could be described as a poet, a performer, a graphic designer, a visual artist, even a walking-tour operator. But the role he’s come all the way to Western Australia to play is much more topical.
“The show could have been called An Evening with a Terrible Basketball Player or An Evening with a Reluctant Vegetarian,” he says of his one-man performance piece, An Evening with an Immigrant. “There’s so many ways of looking at [my life]. This just happened to be how I saw it in 2015.”
But, as the undercurrent of tensions around immigration in Europe “calcified and crystallised” around Brexit, Ellams suddenly found his show was extremely relevant – and in demand.Image result for Inua Ellams
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“The word ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’ has become dirtied and politicised and it’s used to make people fear the unknown,” he says. “It’s used to make invisible monsters of people and those are the most difficult monsters to kill, because you don’t see them; they just bump in the dark, they grow in the dark, they dominate the headlines but people are divorced from the actuality of the humans behind it.”
Ellams, who now lives in London, was born in Nigeria to a Christian mother and a Muslim father, and moved to Ireland where he was the only black boy in his school in Dublin. He’s currently at the Perth International Arts festival, performing, speaking on panels and taking workshops; when we meet he has just come off stage at the State Theatre Centre, where he was performing for school kids.
The show opens with Ellams in a traditional Nigerian costume, but he quickly removes it. “It’s part of Nigerian heritage but I left when I was 12 and I don’t want to feel like I’m performing my culture.” He subsequently perches on stage with little more than a notebook and a suitcase, telling stories and reciting poetry based around his peripatetic autobiography.
“What I try to put on stage is just the common denominator,” he says.
It’s more than that, though: the show is funny, moving and occasionally a little terrifying. Through the warm anecdotes and stirring recitations is an illustration of the profound and devastating impact that a combination of administrative burdens and reactionary policies can have on people who cross borders – even on those who are educated, well-connected and able to fight for their case.
Ellams’s family was beset by additional problems – their passports and birth certificates were ostensibly “lost” by Royal Mail so they had no formal identification. The legal firm representing them, they later learned, had been raided in connection with the black market in fake identities.
Poetry is the axis on which all of Ellams’s work seems to turn. He threw himself into writing it while stuck in immigration limbo after moving back to London from Dublin: poetry was cheap to create and he was an adult in London with no money and no legal right to work. The success of his poetry led him to theatre and he produced his first play, The 14th Tale, with Fuel theatre company (who he says chose to support him regardless of his legal status) and which premiered at Edinburgh festival and eventually landed at the National Theatre.
In 2011, as a result of his success in the arts, Ellams was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen – even as the matter of his UK residency and his right to work was still in question, as it had been for well over a decade and all the way through the formative years of his life. Now 32, Ellams and his family only managed to secure long-term residency for themselves a few years ago. Despite living in both London and Dublin since he was 12, he says he still only has “discretionary leave to remain”, which he must renew every two to three years.
One of Ellams’ final gigs in Perth will be a Midnight Run, an extension of a project he developed with a friend in London, which involves gathering together a group of strangers – poets, artists, generally creative or curious folk – and exploring the city at night while running poetry, theatre and performance workshops.
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Ellams argues that he has no specific political objective for these events but it’s hard not to feel that there’s a kind of resistance inherent in the Midnight Run, in its embrace of public space and uncommon hours, and in the creation of a structure through which strangers can come together to form an overnight creative community. He sees these “momentary communities” as “a safe space for people to come and be themselves, even if the selves they’re being are fabricated just for that night”.
Once describing the objective at the heart of his writing to be “the attempt to make things beautiful regardless of how ugly or difficult a topic is”, Ellams agrees that the current volatile political moment makes it harder for artists to draw out the beauty in things. But when art is successful in that context, he believes that makes it all the more powerful.
“I think all of this happening will create for truer art and more steadfast and weathered art and, in that, more beautiful art,” he says. “It reminds me of the quote from Tupac [Shakur] where he talks about the rose that grows from concrete and why it’s better because it’s survived, it’s struggled. I think the art that comes from all this will be important and visceral, and last longer with more impact.”• The Midnight Run with Inua Ellams will take place on Friday 3 March and Saturday 4 March in Perth
(c) theguardian.com

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