TRCH Classic Thriller Season

Black T-Shirt Collection

12 November 12 words: John Anthony
A dramatic monologue about two Nigerian boys, a Muslim and a younger Christian boy who have been adopted

Inua Ellams performing Black T-Shirt Collection

Black T-Shirt Collection is a monologue delivered in a black box studio setting utilising an unobtrusive soundtrack to create atmosphere and simple projected graphics to facilitate the storytelling. These technical aspects merely provide a frame for the centrepiece of this production which is all about the text and its delivery.

Now when I see the words ‘written and performed by’ I confess the question forms in my mind, which are they first and foremost writer or performer? On the evidence of this production Inua Ellams is most certainly a most talented writer but more of that anon. As a performer all I can report is that when delivering his own bespoke material he wears it like a Savile Row suit, not a stitch out of place.

The story centres around two Nigerian boys, Mohammed a Muslim and Matthew a younger Christian boy who had been adopted. As youngsters they live in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. This is a tough hostile environment and it forges between them a bond of unflinching love and loyalty. Through Matthew’s creativity and Mohammed’s talent for marketing they create a global t-shirt brand that takes then from rural Nigeria via some of the richest cities in the world to the sweatshops of China. The play starts with Matthew returning to his adopted mother to explain how Mohammed died.

From that synopsis you can perhaps appreciate that Inua has a talent for storytelling, but his script is much, so much more than that. It is full of gentle humour and beguiling poetry. In the course of the narrative he manages to shine a light on Nigerian politics both sexual and religious. Not content with that he manages to sew seamlessly into the text a section where he compares and contrasts Shakespeare and Confucius, and all done with intelligence and insight.

Now the performance I saw was played to a pretty well packed studio audience. Unfortunately mid-performance there was a section for a couple of minutes when the technicals went into meltdown. Inua carried bravely on as the lighting behaved haphazardly and until finally it gave up the ghost entirely and left him in total darkness! His “I think it is fairly obvious we are have a few technical problems” summed up his predicament. Anyway after a brief hiatus and going back a couple of lighting cues the production was up and running again.

Now the dialogue is delivered in a Nigerian patois and so it did require the audience to listen intently, especially at the beginning of the play as the ear was becoming attuned. Further Inua’s changes from character to character were very subtle and so required you to be fully engaged throughout. Both these factors had the effect of drawing you into the story for which the audience was richly rewarded.

As the piece was coming to its denouement I was concerned that the audience expectation had been heightened by the quality of what had gone before. There was no need to worry Inua Ellams is a master storyteller and the ending is stunning and, as is the rest of the play, true to its Nigerian roots.

Beautiful man, beautiful text, beautifully delivered.

Inua Ellams’ Black T-Shirt Collection was performed at the Nottingham Playhouse on 9 and 10 November 2012

Inua Ellams


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Matt Miller is a member of Mouthy Poets and shares his thoughts on what seeing performers like Inua Ellams means to him. 

As a member of the Mouthy Poets I have seen and learned from some great acts. Deborah Stevenson, Mouthy’s founder, is consistently insistent that members take the chance to meet the professionals she brings in. Via Facebook, text, phone, or even in person with her own mouth she fills our inboxes with opportunities which are not to be taken lightly and which have had significant influence on me and my work. Seeing Inua Ellams’ one-man show, Black T-Shirt Collective, on Saturday was no exception.

In following two young Nigerian brothers as they establish a business which expands out of their comfort or control, Ellams has created a story which manages to make comment upon a range of social issues without ever needing to shout or preach. Volatile brotherhood, homophobia, capitalist exploitation, grief, cultural identity, the power of money to change, it’s all quite notably here, though without ever diluting a cleverly constructed narrative. The language is compellingly descriptive, while remaining fast-paced and to the point and effective use of sound, lighting and still image are also to be commended.

It is the powerful character-driven nature of the work though that shines, and it was with a focus on character development that Inua delivered his two hour workshop on Saturday afternoon.

Enjoyable and informative, the workshop illuminated Inua’s own working methods and the process behind the apparent ease with which he writes and delivers his stories. Though humble and aware that people work differently, he gently poked the contemporary ‘bohemian’ idea of ‘just writing from the soul’ in the ribs, stressing instead his belief in the importance of structure in creation. As he guided us through the method with which he sets about creating a character, the validity of his opinion was clear as all eighteen of us set about exploring characters, following a seven point set of instructions. In hindsight, the advice given seemed fantastically simple. However, I drew a lot from Ellams’ style of internally rhyming poetic prose and pacey narrative and it seems his carefully considered approach aids this greatly. Inevitably the workshop informed my experience of the evening show and was something of a revelation.

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Inua Ellams is more than a good writer. As a graphic designer, he has the confidence to reveal narrative with images as well as words. As a story teller, the solidity of his performance cements the believability of the characters he creates. This multi-disciplined approach has, it seems, enabled him to produce work which is poignant, poetic and universally relatable. I look forward to reading more of his work and will be keeping an open ear for news of his next performance.

Mouthy poets is a collective of poets who meet at Nottingham Playhouse every Friday from 5-8pm. Sessions are only £2 each. Thanks to a successful funding bid we have launched Mouthy Youngers, aimed at young people aged 11-16, who meet at Nottingham Playhouse every Monday from 4-6pm.