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Inua Ellams doesn't know much about Oklahoma except that there's a musical about it he's never seen, that the state boasts a pretty good basketball team, and that the weather here can get very cold.
But the Britain-based writer, poet and performer also knows that many Oklahomans might not have insight into the kind of experiences he's had and will share in "An Evening with an Immigrant."
"The show can be traumatic to perform. There's a lot of things that I relive in it; therefore, I have to be careful when I do choose to do the show and to whom I tell the story. But telling the story across the world has been life-affirming and challenging," he said by Zoom from his London home.
"Some audiences have not taken the story too well, because they found it too honest and too challenging. ... Also, aspects of my privilege have been brought to my attention because of the show, and I've learned ways in which that I navigate the world that I have taken for granted."
Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, Ellams left his native Nigeria for England in 1996 at age 12. He moved to Ireland for three years, then returned to London, where he is now based, to work as a writer and graphic designer.
With his one-man show, he shares his story of escaping fundamentalist Islam, finding friendship and prejudice in Dublin and even drinking wine with the Queen of England — all without a country to call home.
"It is theater in a way that people might not expect. It is what theater was meant to be, which is telling a story. It's about the resiliency of the human spirit," said Kelly Kerwin, the new artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, which is presenting Ellams' Oklahoma debut.
The first show presented by OKC Rep under Kerwin's leadership — and the first for the regional theater since autumn 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Ellams is slated to perform "An Evening with an Immigrant" at 8 p.m. Jan. 22 and 5 p.m. Jan. 23 at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center's Te Ata Theatre. Along with keeping the space at 50% capacity, OKC Rep requiring its audiences to to wear masks and to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or of a negative test taken within 72 hours.
"Particularly at a time when 2,000 Afghan refugees are coming to Oklahoma to make new homes ... it gives folks here another lens," Kerwin said. "It's not just 'This is what I read in the news; this is what I saw on TV.' It's, 'I heard a story, I met somebody, I saw somebody tell their personal tale.'"
Here are five questions with Ellams ahead of his OKC debut:
As you've toured it around, does it feel like your show is pretty universal?
I think so — and I think it's increasingly becoming more universal. And I say that because there are more people displaced now than there were in the Second World War, which means that there are a lot of immigrants across the world, either those who are internally displaced for economic reasons or political or social reasons, or those externally displaced across the world. ... I think it's only going to become more universal when climate change really sinks its fangs into the planet, again, which is happening at an alarming rate.
What are your thoughts, from an immigrant perspective, on immigration as a social issue?
I never look at things in isolation. I think part of being a writer is understanding yourself in a communal sense. ... So, it's a social issue, definitely. But it's also an economic issue. It's also a political issue. It's also a climate change issue. My show focuses on the social and political forces that caused me to leave Nigeria — and also the religious reasons which forced me to leave Nigeria.
But towards the end of the show, I branch out to discuss it in as many ways as possible. ... There are any number of forces forcing people to move, and trying to isolate (it) creates a very narrow story. And trying to narrow things make stereotypes of individuals, which is intensely dangerous, because we are kaleidoscopic human beings.
It's seems like 12 would be a very formative age to move not just to a different country, but to a different continent, to a completely different sort of cultural place. Was it?
It really was. I hate to use the word traumatic, because at the time, it didn't feel like it. We were just doing what we needed to survive, and my parents did a good job of shielding us from the real reasons why we had to.
But I definitely didn't want to leave Nigeria. I was crying the whole way through, because I was leaving my best friends and my communities and having to start everything from scratch in the UK. When I arrived here, those first couple of months felt like an adventure. ... I joined school and discovered various things, including an identity of Blackness, which wasn't really attached as a description of my being in Nigeria, because everybody just looked like me. I wasn't described as being Black; I just was.
So, a lot of sudden global awakening settled on me as an individual — and as a concept — which my parents didn't prepare me for, because they weren't prepared for it themselves.
Has the show evolved as you've been performing it?
Each year, I have to update it, because it's pinned to my immigration battles with the British government, which are still ongoing. ... I'm trying to balance updates in the show for British audiences or with British politics, but also to include this American element. ... America was built under the exact same situations as the contemporary migration quote-unquote crisis is built on: Economic migrants from the UK — who are the working-class people who lived on farms, which were taken away from them by members of the aristocracy — (were) internally displaced. ... They then thought, "Where else can I go? Where can I migrate to build a better life?" And America served those purposes.
What do you do you hope that people can maybe gain by hearing your story?
I hope people come with an open heart. ... My story, though it is symbolic of so many things, is specific to me. And it is just one way of articulating what is happening to so many people across racial and socio-political and economic lines. ... As with all art, it is entirely subjective. But what the audiences do with what they've experienced is what matters, is where art can be transformative.
But I have no power over that. All I'm saying is, "Here is a mirror. Look at it."
'An Evening with an Immigrant'
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 22 and 5 p.m. Jan. 23.
Where: Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center's Te Ata Theater, 11 NW 11.
COVID-19 protocols: Audiences are required to wear masks and provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or of a negative test taken within 72 hours.
Information and tickets: www.okcrep.org.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Spend 'An Evening with an Immigrant': 5 questions with Inua Ellams ahead of his OKC debut