by Carol Rocamora. . .

Inua Ellams – – –

Experience the primal power of storytelling in Borders & Crossings, Inua Ellams’s arresting “spoken word” theatre work.  It’s one of the offerings in this year’s annual Under the Radar Festival on-line at the Public Theater, featuring works from around the world. 

In this deeply moving, one-hour piece on ZOOM, Ellams (A UK Playwright) introduces two actors, Mylène Gomera and Sopè Dirisu, who will read two short poems (:F***/Borders” and “F***/Border Guards”) followed by two narratives entitled “Dolphins” and “Ike/Rust.” The latter two constitute the substance of the evening, directed by Bijan Sheibani.

“Dolphins” tells the story of three young refugees fleeing Eritrea and the Sudan, bound for the United Kingdom and the promise of freedom.  Their names – Senebesh, Dani, and Abbas – put human faces on the countless heartbreaking stories we’ve heard in the news recently about refugees and their terrible sufferings.  The story is the result of a collaborative workshop that Ellams conducted with young refugees, supported by an organization called Refugee Stories.

Inua Ellams

Like Odysseus’s perilous journey in The Odyssey, these youngsters encounter many obstacles and traumas.  As the storytellers explain, the initial group includes 88 refugees, but 19 die in the desert along the way.  They journey from a refugee camp in Gedaref, Sudan, to Tripoli and then Zuwara on the Libyan coast, where they board a boat crammed with 430 refugees, heading toward Italy. There are gruesome details, as their boats cut through clumps of human bodies floating in the water, their eyes eaten by piscine predators. Another youngster – Aliyah – spots her brother’s body among them, and dives into the dangerous waters.  When their boat begins to sink, the others dive in, too, swimming toward the Italian coast guards coming toward them.  Arriving on the island of Lampedusa, the first stop for refugees on their way to Europe, Aliyah still clutches her dead brother’s corpse, while Senebesh discovers that Dani is gone.

This heartbreaking story is told in a rich, poetic narrative – testimony that Ellams is an accomplished poet as well as a playwright.  Arresting images abound – like the dolphins that the youngsters see in the water, diving to and fro. It’s a fleeting hopeful image, replaced by the horrific view of the bodies.

The second narrative, “Ike/Rust”, is inspired by the Greek myth of Icarus.  Rust, her mother Salma, and her brother Malik are in a refugee camp on an island the Mediterranean.  Rust is desperate to escape.  One night, she builds wings from scraps she finds in a cave.  The next day, she actually takes an ecstatic flight, heading toward Italy.  As she swoops through the sky, Italian coast guards spot her, thinking she’s a large bird, while the refugees call out to her, thrilled and amazed.  When the bolts pop and the harness snaps and a wing tears off, Rust plunges into the sea.  Says her mother: 

“My daughter accomplished an incredible thing,

She flew and reached for a future she could barely see…

When you sing her story, keep her bright,

Keep her real.”

The passionate investment of these theatre artists is palpable, poignant, and deeply personal.   At the age of two, actress Mylène Gomera took the same route as the characters in Borders & Crossings, when her parents fled from Eritrea. She and SopèDirisu give deeply committed, heartfelt performances. 

As for Ellams, he is an immigrant, too, and the theme of migration runs deep in his work.  An award-winning and prolific playwright, poet, and performer, Ellams was born in Nigeria into a wealthy family.  After becoming the target of Islam extremists, his family fled in 1996 when he was 12 – first to London, where they encountered legal issues owing to their refugee status, and then to Ireland.  The accounts of his childhood and experiences as a refugee are chronicled in his new work An Evening with an Immigrant, a new solo show in which he performs.  

So the issues of Borders & Crossings – displacement, destiny, identity – are vital ones that matter in Ellams’s own life, and continue to do so. (After all his recognition and continued efforts, he still not has received British citizenship).

In the end, Borders & Crossings feels like a prelude to a fuller work.

In the talk-back session following the performance on ZOOM, it was mentioned that Ellams plans to turn Borders & Crossings into an opera.  Given his prodigious accomplishments (he’s only 36) – three volumes of poetry and six plays, including two that have appeared at the Royal National Theatre (Barber Shop Chronicles, 2017, and The Three Sisters “after Chekhov”, 2020) -we eagerly await his next challenge.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Ellams declares that he is on a “continuing quest to find people to tell stories to.”  How fortunate that, through the Under the Radar Festival, he has found us.

Border & Crossings, by Inua Ellams, directed by Bijan Sheibani, performed on-line in the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater,