Speaking for Ourselves

‘Without a doubt, poetry saved my life’

‘Without a doubt, poetry saved my life’

Daniel Nelson

 Migrant Voice - ‘Without a doubt, poetry saved my life’

Lazy and dishonest lawyers, a couldn’t-care-less Home Office, school racism, inadequate jobs – most refugees and many migrants will recognise elements of Inua Ellams’ story.

But though the UK’s hostile environment – still as viciously destructive as ever – harms and hurts everyone on the receiving end, every newcomer to these shores has a unique story to tell.

Ellams, for example, had a Muslim father and a Christian mother, a distinctively ungendered upbringing in Nigeria, a particularly heartless relationship with the UK immigration authorities that forced the family to relocate to Dublin, racist threats that drove them back to London, a talent for poetry and literature, and an invitation to Buckingham Palace that misspelt his name.

For Ellams, however, every setback and incident is grist to his storytelling skills. He turned his experiences into a semi-autobiographical play, had a sell-out run with another play, Barber Shop Chronicles, at the National Theatre, and has won a hatful of poetry (“the cheapest way to be free”) and drama awards.

Now he is helping Londoners beat lockdown blues by appearing in a one-man show at the Bridge Theatre.

He canters genially through his story, from his happy middle-class childhood to his name in lights and champagne with the Queen. The emotions and incidents (facing his first British bully, Mitchell; denial of British citizenship on the grounds that he “wasn’t of good character”; depression) are interspersed with his excellent poems: “Without a doubt, poetry saved my life.”

It’s a delightful, entertaining performance, but in the final few minutes he delivers the punch – an impassioned monologue about the iniquities and inequities of Britain’s immigration procedures, the casual cruelty, the crippling fees, the blaming of migrants for the country’s ills, discrimination in the NHS and housing. And he doesn’t let the socially distanced audience off the hook: Say No, not in my name, he urges – search Google to see if there’s anything you can do. 

* An Evening With An Immigrant is at The Bridge Theatre, 3 Pottersfield Park, SE1, £29.50/ £22.50/  £15/ £10, until 15 October.

Read more: Inua Ellams: ‘London is the closest I’ve felt to a home’, Time Out

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