Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence, Untitled is a magical, lyrical story, set in Nigeria and England, of identical twin boys separated at infancy. In the quarrel after the marred naming ceremony, the mother grabs the titled child and flees, leaving the unnamed brother to lead a chaotic existence, until the spirits make their stand.
Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet and graphic artist who lives in London. His debut play The 14th Tale won a Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival 2009 and ran at the National Theatre in spring 2010.
We caught up with Inua to ask him some questions about the show and his work.
How did the ideas for the show come about and why did you choose to tell your story through the lives of twinbrothers? Do they have any other significance in Nigerian culture?
I was born with the first seed of the play: I have a twin sister. When we were 3, I cried like a lost child the first day of separation at nursery. She didn’t even look back. I manned up sharpish and as we grew and met other twins, I wondered what if she had been a guy or I a girl. Now, way back when, twins were seen as evil portents in parts of Nigeria. When they were born they were destroyed instantly, sometimes with their mother. Things have changed, twins are celebrated now. There is even a twin worshiping cult that sees us as spiritually powerful, tricksters, gifts from God, two halves of the same soul. And finally, I believe Nigeria’s identity to be twinned; split between its indigenous population and its far reaching diasporic communities. These notions and ideas were the main inspiration for Untitled.
Through the piece, I explore the culture shock and clash experienced by young people trying to break out of traditional societies.
The story follows the lives of two brothers leading very different lives, one titled during his naming ceremony, and the other not. Why is the idea of being a named titled child so important in Nigerian culture?
It is believed in parts of West Africa that children grow to embody their names, that a child named Joy will spread happiness. The weight of importance giving to naming is spread across the world in various incarnations, as ways of ensuring the memory of a loved one lives on, to constructing oral histories. But the importance of names is also evident in western literature going back centuries, even the bard named characters after their traits: Cordelia (name means heart) was honest, loveable and the kindest sister in King Lear. Prospero prospered on the land he claimed, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Desdemona, derived from Greek, means ill fated.
The stories that you tell in both The 14th Tale and Untitled feel very autobiographical. How much do your own life experiences inform your writing?
Poetry is all about truth. And as my creative process begins with poetry, my writing is infused with my personal truth. But I’d argue that anything that an artist creates is autobiographical because to create, to give birth, something of yourself is sacrificed, your DNA is coded in the thing itself, it exists because you do, it is biographical of you.
You also write poetry, some of which has been published, such as Thirteen Negro Tales, the pre-cursor/introduction, in some ways, to your first show for the stage, The 14th Tale. What would you say are the main differences between these two mediums/ways of presenting your artistic ideas? What made you want to start presenting your work on the stage as opposed to through the written word?
The differences are marginal. I began reading my poems on stages before my book came out. Before it was written, it was spoken and I approached writing the 14th Tale with the same mindset: namely to read a long poem and try to hold an audience’s attention. To hold the audience, I felt I had to run around a bit and this gave rise to the theatricality of its presentation on stage but because of its poetic roots, The 14th Tale would also work extremely well as a radio play. Whereas with the new play, Untitled, I am going as far away from that as possible. I felt the story could be better communicated, in a three dimensional space using the tricks of the theatre.
What other Nigerian poets / writers have inspired your work? What artist/artists have most inspired and influenced you thus far?
I stole from Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, celebrated Nigerian writers. Their novels ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘The Famished Road’ inspired parts of Untitled as did Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nii Parkes, Roger Robinson, Major Jackson, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi, Kwame Dawes, Jacob Sam La Rose, Niall O’Sullivan, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Saul Williams, Tracy Chapman, Sekou Sundiata, John Keats… the list goes on.
Untitled will be playing at Bristol Old Vic from Thurs 23 Sat 25 Sept.
Buy tickets here: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/untitled.html