ACCORDING to Vanessa Williams Singer, a former United States of America beauty queen, “everybody wishes they can erase their mistakes. But that is not how life works.” For Inua Ellams those mistakes of the past, though multifarious, can be hilarious told for people to learn from them.
This spoken word artist did just that when during the British Council organised Lagos Theatre Festival, which was held recently, he presented The 14th Tale.
Embracing the finesse of language Ellams tells the story of a young Black boy growing up in three cultures across the globe.
Opening with a man sitting on a single hard-backed chair, shirt and trouser stain with blood, he anxiously awaits someone, probably the receptionist, to tell him the true health condition of his father, whom he brought to the hospital.
As he waits, sometime barking orders at the people and sometimes also taking instructions or apologising for his unruly behaviour, one expects to hear another horrific tale of a young Black man humiliated in London, but instead Ellams provides a complex tale of his family life, friendship, hate and love.
The tale, a sequence of autobiographical sketches, takes him from the dusty roads in Nigeria to a London classroom, then to the streets of Dublin, racing back at intervals to a moment where he sits jumpily in a hospital reception, waiting to hear from the receptionist or any medics about his father.
Ellams narrative is fleshed out by his agile shimmying across the stage, arousing fellow feeling and evoking mood. Recalling he is heritage in rhythmic poetry Ellams says, I come from a long line of troublemakers, of ash skinned Africans, born with clenched fist and a natural thirst for battle.” He reveals how his grandfather and father were infamous in their village for their troublesome tricks.
CLEARLY intent on upholding his birthright, he causes trouble wherever he goes and invariably gets caught.
Though Ellams only makes a glance references to racism, emigration and displacement, these themes, however, form the backdrop to a narrative that focuses on his rebellion as a child and teenager with an irrepressible disruptiveness inherited from his father and grandfather.
Regardless of how evoking and poignant the narrative seems, some of the pranks such as provoking the wrath of a ‘hurricane nun’ in Bible class, coating the bedclothes of a boarding school enemy with toothpaste are laughable, while the likes of urinating against the school wall setting thumb tracks on the way of his secondary school senior that bullied him or playing basketball with mates on the rooftop in Dublin seem relatively tame.
On the whole, despite their geographical locations, the men of Ellams family have a common denominator — mischief.
Produced by Fuel Theatre Company, but written and directed by Inua Ellams (himself), the monologue reveals a strong ties between Ellams and his father; a relationship that would have further given the audience a better understanding of him (Ellams’ father) and the tale had he been exposed.
There is also a need for the tense moments to take us past the genuinely charming story teller and unveils the person telling his family story in a tee shirt and trouser stained with blood.
With the lighting appropriately projecting the different locations and creating nostalgic feelings, Fela’s music at the background further brings to life that wistfulness to the listener, conjuring the restive traits common among the men in Ellams’ lineage.
Also of note, is the venue, Casa Chianti Restaurant, which is too small and poorly ventilated to accommodate large number of people. Aside from this, the stage is low with clustered chairs that make the audience to stretch their necks to catch a better view of the performance; besides it would have been a better space for musical performance.
On the whole The 14th Tale showcases a story of a man grounded in his past, proud of his heritage and mixed cultural upbringing.