Poet turned theatre-maker Inua Ellams’ latest show tells the rags-to-riches story of two peripatetic T-shirt entrepreneurs. From the dusty streets of Jos, Nigeria, their journey of self-improvement and self-knowledge takes them via Cairo and London to the sweatshop conditions of a Chinese garments factory.
Muhammed and Matthew are brothers as well as business partners, but (and you can guess from their names) they are separated by religion: Muhammed is Muslim; Matthew, a foster child, Christian. An early scene has Muhammed defending his younger brother against a mob of schoolboys who ‘pour sand across his nose and mouth, chanting ‘Onwards Christian Soldier”.
Inter-religious conflict in Nigeria has been especially high on the news agenda since the Christmas Day bombing of St Theresa’s Catholic Church, Mandalla – in the country’s contested central region –by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Now, more than ever, we need to tell stories to heal the wounds caused by intolerance; to show how difference – whether religious, ethnic or cultural – can be reconciled, and uniqueness celebrated.
The brothers are distinguished very adeptly by Ellams’ captivating performance: Muhammed, wide-boy salesman and bon vivant, speaks in a rich, confident baritone, whilst Matthew, ‘typical artist … all pencils and pens’ and clearly a cipher for the author, is softly-spoken and slightly nerdy. In this 75-minute monologue Ellams shows how far he has come as a performer since his debut play The 14th Tale won him an Edinburgh Fringe First in 2009. The enunciation of his poetry is clear and crisp, and there is just enough variation in his physical acting to give credible form to a cast of characters from a middle-aged Egyptian carpet-seller to a mourning Nigerian mother.
Moments of humour enhance what is otherwise an intense and mesmerising performance, Ellams’ constant presence complemented by sympathetic lighting and sound design. When the brothers discover that it’s ‘cool to be African in London’, their business partner Hassan explains that it’s ‘Something to do with liberal guilt and colonial madness’, adding ‘enjoy it!’ And when Matthew offers his gawky friend Zebra Santana fashion advice, he proclaims, ‘‘No tight shirts, always hide your nipples.’
Where Ellams’ early work showcased an extravagant poetic style whose fanciful metaphors and dense, highly rhythmical language sometimes favoured style over substance, Black T-Shirt Collection introduces a more pared back aesthetic – better able to sustain a narrative. And one can forgive the occasional overcooked simile (‘his arm stretched out like an olive branch’) or lapse into cliché (‘quiet as mice’) when that narrative is so engaging and thought-provoking.
As Matthew and Muhammed’s grassroots enterprise grows into an international business, subject to the ‘swirling madness of gossip columns’, the troubles of Nigeria fade into a distant memory. But the ‘bubble that surrounds old friends’ only serves to cocoon them from the wider impact of their activities. A trip to the factory in China which produces their famous black t-shirts bursts that bubble, with tragic consequences.
There’s something of the Shakespearean tragedy about Black T-Shirt Collection: siblings alike yet divided, revelation and betrayal, and the sense of an inescapable fall from grace. An initial, breathless delight in the infinite tapestry of the cosmopolitan city dissolves, revealing the corrupt mechanics of globalisation.
‘You can map global poverty down to one shirt, one black T-shirt Matthew. From our stall in Jos to this huge factory, something’s wrong, something always goes wrong.’
For Ellams – himself a twin – has also written a kind of parable about the lure of money and success, one which asks us to consider our place in a global market. The message, though, is more tentative than preachy: this is no moralising gospel, but a questioning and compassionate story of brotherhood in a compromised world.