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How citizenship dramas stopped Inua Ellams from attending his Sydney Festival debut

How citizenship dramas stopped Inua Ellams from attending his Sydney Festival debut
Photograph: Marc Brenner

When Barber Shop Chronicles opens as part of Sydney Festival next month, it will do so without one very important person.

Instead of seeing the accolades that will almost certainly be lavished on the play on its first outing outside the UK, writer Inua Ellams will be in London. He's currently prevented from travelling due to an ongoing immigration issue that refuses to recognise the 32-year-old or his family as British citizens, and forces him to renew his residency every three years.

“It’s been my life for 21 years now,” says Ellams, who was 12 when his family arrived in Britain after leaving Nigeria and its escalating religious tensions. “It’s a frustration I’m used to [that] flares up now and then. But for the most part I’ve learnt to cope with it.”

In fairness, Ellams has spent quite a lot of time in Australia over the past few months.

Most recently, he presented his award-winning one-man show, An Evening with an Immigrant at Sydney Opera House’s Antidote Festival, and prior to that, Perth Festival.

“To return to Australia a third time might push my already precarious carbon footprint over the edge,” he says. Nonetheless, his exasperation at this state of affairs is evident.

Not surprisingly, belonging and displacement are ongoing preoccupations for the poet and theatre maker. In An Evening with an Immigrant, he drew on his experiences growing up in London and as “the only black boy” at his school in Dublin to examine the contentious issue of immigration. In Barber Shop Chronicleswhich arrives in Sydney on the back on two sold-out seasons at London’s National Theatre, he turns his attention to African men globally.

Set over the course of one day in London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, the show explores the importance of the barber shop to African men, not only as a place to get their hair cut, but to gossip, laugh, share advice and most of all, escape judgement.

“If you look at the history of public spaces in the United Kingdom, they have been, more often than not, hostile to people of colour and to black men specifically,” says Ellams.

“In the sporting industry, black players to this day have audiences chanting ‘monkey’ at them and throwing bananas on the pitch, and then at places like working men’s clubs, black men are looked at with suspicion. Africans tend to be louder people, they just are, and sometimes that is mistaken for aggression – you see that day in, day out on the streets of America, where black men are dying because policemen can’t police their own imagination. In barber shops, none of that comes into play. We are just allowed to be ourselves.”

During his research for the play, Ellams travelled to Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana and spent time in barber shops in Leeds and London, interviewing the men he found there and listening to their conversations. Part of the reason he believes the play has struck such a chord with audiences is the ordinariness of its subject matter.

“I think black people, theatre audiences, televisions audiences et cetera are so tired of seeing black bodies come to life in the newspaper and in the media,” he says.

“In America, people like Trump have [normalised] the most offensive views, which we’ve tried to suppress and rid our communities of. Seeing that I think just makes people instinctively look for counter-narratives, and Barber Shop Chronicles works to affirm that they were right to disbelieve those things. At the crux of it, it’s just people living day to day and struggling and thinking about things. The play lifts that and makes it larger, and I think that’s why it works.”

For Ellams, such self-assurance has been hard-won, and he says it took him a long time to realise that he had a voice of value within the British theatre scene. What changed his mind was seeing other immigrants on stage and sharing their stories – and being listened to.

“I realised that this could be on stage and people could applaud it and empathise with those stories and I could write myself into my own plays. If I hadn’t seen that, I would never have considered the possibility of engaging with and being part of the British industry,” he says.

In Australia, where anti-immigration rhetoric is depressingly constant and people of colour marginalised, inspiring immigrants to share their stories is even more vital, he believes.

“Until people in those communities to see themselves on stage; until they find themselves depicted in the most important arts industry, they don’t really feel like they belong.”

Barber Shop Chronicles is at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, from January 18 to 28.

Check out our top 20 picks of the Sydney Festival program

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