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May 3rd, 2012

“To Boldly Go…” Black T-shirt Collection – An Interview with Inua Ellams

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Written by: Jacqueline Shaw
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We spoke a little with Inua Ellams last year about his theatre product with a focus on the tee-shirt industry in Nigeria and we were excited to hear that the show was on the road starting in London. So we asked respected Fashion Designer and spoken word creative to interview him. Continue to read on to hear more on the interview with Inua by Rich ´Blk´Mkoloma about Inua´s play Black T-shirt Collection. Rich ‘Blk’ Mkoloma is a Freelance Fashion Designer / Consultant, Writer, Poet & Music Artist who walks armed with a Notepad & Pad, Imaginary Sewing Needle, Low Slung Jeans and a Laptop that’s too clean.


To boldly go…

A freezing cold London night, it’s wind is blowing from London’s Parliament Square. Wearing just a T-shirt and a scarf he walks, a long, contemplative, tension-appeasing walk along the South Bank. The solemn aftermath of an argument with a girlfriend. Another guy, walking towards him, perhaps also in the throes of a turbulent ‘conversation’, also wearing a T-shirt, this one coloured black, on which are starkly emblazoned the names ‘Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko’ (and I assume, Archer) all names of the Captains from Star Trek, the cult Sci-fi Television franchise, which draw a writer’s admiration, releases him from his malaise and creates a spark.

“Imagine having the coolest collection of black T-shirts…”

And thus inspires the title of Inua Ellam’s latest play, “Black T-shirt Collection”, which is currently being performed at The National Theatre in London, UK. His previous award winning, critically acclaimed and successful plays include The 14th Tale, Untitled & Knightwatch.

Inua Ellams’ own journey in realising his latest play grew legs first as a poem, then as a series of T-shirt designs. Finally he decided to write a story about 2 foster brothers, 2 friends who set up a black T-shirt company, and charts their shared journey from Nigeria through homophobia, sectarian violence to a sweatshop in China and the politics at play there and whilst elements of his personal history are threaded into the story – Inua’s father, a Muslim married his Christian mother and Inua himself grew up at a time when the beginnings of the sectarian violence had just “exploded across Nigeria”, although he is keen to add that these elements are to root the story in authenticity, rather than as a platform for any personal political dogma.

The story is about ethical clothing, exploitation, factory work and a little about the fashion industry, about how you build a buzz to sell product – the idea behind products which sometimes is what people sell more than the actual product itself”, Inua explains.

With Sustainable, Ecological and Ethical ideas and agendas becoming more than just political sound-bites and the latest trendy slogans, Inua’s play, coupled with great insight and research perfectly arrive at a time when the fashion industry is struggling to adapt and operate in a shifting landscape where they are expected to be more socially accountable, all whilst maintaining relevance. He is also spot on in regards to the mythology and interaction the public have with companies in general as brands are no longer just the products or even just the image they sell, but what is becoming increasingly important is the narrative the are telling and the conversations they have, not just with their customers but other brands, (through collaboration) & globally, through content presented on their various channels: online portals, print, shows and events.

“It just fell into my lap!” he says

Serendipity: The perfect synchronisation of current issues and the themes explored within the play made the process of research both fascinating and satisfactorily easy. Two podcasts in particular that inspired him were…

‘This American Life’ which, “Is just Amazing!” Inua exclaims, and ‘NPR Planet Money’ who “have 2 or so podcasts per week and they talk about money, and how money works in America and the repercussions both from the Governmental level down to the micro level, from artists and how they find it difficult, right up to corrupt members of the house of representatives. They talk about soft power, and how much (influence) the president actually has with the American economy… (they) had a series where they tried to make a Planet Money T-shirt to sell to their customers, and when I say ‘make’ it, they tried to find the cotton, take the cotton to the cotton mill, find the right kind of dye, decide where the cotton was to be spun, take it to a factory which will in turn take it into another factory, you know, just do everything from the bottom up, from interviewing cotton pickers, right to India, to China, and they did all my research for me! I just listened!”

Inua Ellams – Images By Rich Blk Mkoloma

When asked for Inua’s thoughts on the fashion industry in Nigeria, he expresses how a friend based there & connected to the Fashion Week in Lagos talked him through the business of selling clothes in Nigeria.

“Building a ground up response to an idea, and a lot of the T-shirts that I featured in the story were ideas that I would love to make. One of them was a T-shirt which responded directly to the politics around Oil in Nigeria,” and here is where Inua’s dual creative background, that of an accomplished and talented graphic designer add a third dimension to the way he goes about crafting his stories.

“The character Matthew, draws a white lake on the front of the T-shirt then on the back he writes, “Dear Shell, Water No Get Enemy” (the instantly recognisable lyrics from the famously infamous Fela Kuti protest song of the same name), Inua continues, “Beneath that he leaves a space so that the person who buys the shirt can sign their names and they wear these T-shirts like letters to the protests. I tried to create things that would respond to Nigerian Identity, and just to highlight that and the playfulness of that is what I would look for in clothing and it’s why I don’t want to buy a black T-shirt from anyone!”

Our conversation turned to the potential effect the play might have on those who come across it and the debate it might stir, and while Inua has no agenda for how he would like discussions to be formed around the play his intent is simply to “Write a really good short story, and show how the politics of the world would impact upon personal relationships… and do so honestly. I think my politics are clear if you were to read the play but I never wanted to wag a finger at anyone, I just wanted to show how these things can deeply and profoundly affect two people just trying to be themselves.”  He does concede however that “Discussions that have arisen is, homosexuality in Nigeria (one of the central characters is gay), ‘to do with exploitation, the Western standards to factory work and how we impose our own views on those of other countries, for instance, when he goes to China, the manager of the factory there says “This is just how it is here and these people need the work so you’re coming in riding on your high horse saying it’s bad but who are you? that’s in your own zone.” Those (type of) politics and personal play, those are the kind of debates that I think arise.”

“I think the play hits a number people in a number of different levels and I don’t yet quite know what those are. It’s the same thing that underlines every reason why I write and one of the things that’s fundamental to Hip Hop and why Hip Hop is so successful. Rappers are good at tapping into bare emotions, things that Joe Bloggs, a multimillionaire and Mikey who runs the sweet shop can tap into, that frustration against wanting to be yourself, against the impossible, ineffable odds of the world and what I wanted to do was just to display that – how these two foster brothers go through the same emotions that I imagine everyone sitting in the audience have in some way come across, something has touched them similarly and that whole universal human experience, that’s what I wanted to tap into and that’s what I want people to leave with and to feel.”

The journey that has taken Inua Ellams from an inspired night stemming from an argument with a girlfriend, a chance meeting of sorts that inspired ‘Black T-shirt Collection’ and sent him back to childhood memories in Nigeria and the current political and social terrain that includes Oil, Religion, Sexuality to Fashion and it’s ethics is rounded off succinctly by the man himself with a particularly luminous moment from the film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, which itself also dealt with some of the contradictions found within the fashion industry.

“There’s this scene between (the character played by) Anne Hathaway and this dude who’s Meryl Streep’s (character’s) Art Director and he was describing his passion for clothing, and he said something like ‘Its a way of life, it’s not just a T-shirt its something you wear, it presents and makes a statement about you!’ And I think that whole mythology is built into the fashion industry and I think it works for good and bad reasons. So I guess as a writer, my interests would be trying to make those reasons more apparent or obvious so people are more aware of exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s one of the reasons why I think a black T-shirt is so great a metaphor – the colour black itself, some people say it’s the absence of light, but again it’s where everything comes from so to have a black T-shirt is almost like to wear a full stop, to wear nothing, it’s like a common denominator you know? It’s like space from which to project everything on and it’s something that’s so common and so readily available, I think it’s a great canvas to wear and from which to project your personality from regardless of what that might be you, know the kind of statements you make.”

Inua Ellams is a Poet, Author, Playwright, Performer, Designer and a modestly self-described “Word & Graphic Artist – a writer with a style as influenced by classic literature as it is by hip hop, by Keats as it is by Mos Def. Rooted in a love for rhythm and language, he crosses 18th century romanticism & traditional story telling with contemporary diction and musicality.”

For more information on Inua and his works please view:

At the time of writing ‘Black T-shirt Collection’ was being shown at the National Theatre, in London until April 24 and then will continue on it’s tour in the UK during the dates and at the following venues:

1 – 2 May // 7.45pm

Black T-shirt Collection // £10.50/£8.50 // Warwick Arts Centre Coventry CV4 7AL // 024 7652 4524

 5 May // 8pm

Black T-shirt Collection // £12/£10 // The Maltings Theatre Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 1AJ // 01289 330 999

13 May // 2 & 5pm

Black T-shirt Collection // Caravan Festival, Brighton.

14 May// 7.45pm

Black T-shirt Collection // £14/£12 // Merlin Theatre Frome BA11 2HG // 01373 465949


Author: Rich Blk Mkoloma






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