In The Middle with Inua Ellams

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Jo Haywood sits down with playwright, poet and performer Inua Ellams ahead of the return of his smash-hit Barber Shop Chronicles to the Leeds Playhouse.

You have said that this play was seven years in the making when you completed your thirteenth and final draft of it. What inspired you to write this show?

Back in 2010, someone gave me a flyer about a pilot project to teach barbers the very basics of counselling. I was surprised that conversations in barber shops were so intimate that someone thought that barbers should be trained in counselling, and also that they wanted the counselling project sessions to happen in the barber shop. This meant that on some level the person who was organising this thought there was something sacred about barber shops. Initially, I wanted to create a sort of poetry and graphic art project where I would create illustrations or portraits of the men while they got their hair cut, writing poems based on the conversations I’d overhear. I failed to get that project off the ground but the idea just stayed with me for a couple of years, until I got talking to Kate McGrath from Fuel who liked the idea. Together we approached the National Theatre.

How did the project develop from there?

I began with a month-long residency at the National Theatre in London, then a week-long residency at Leeds Playhouse. I then had six weeks of research travelling through the African continent; in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana. I returned with about sixty hours of recordings, which I whittled down to a four-hour play then, eventually, to an hour and forty-five minute show.

How does it feel to write the play and hand it over to others to bring to life?

It’s all about trust and that is mediated by the director. It can be very nerve-racking. It can also be very exposing for other people to take your words and do what they will with them. They can find that moments in the play are not as subtle as you imagined they were and critique and ask questions. But this is all conducive to creating better art. So this has definitely been a positive experience with this play.

Why is Barber Shop Chronicles so important today, and what do you hope people will take away from the play?

In the last few years, images of Black bodies being brutalised by law enforcement were everywhere; on Twitter, shared in WhatsApp groups, on prime-time news. As a prequel to think pieces, from the NY Times to The Guardian. The images and stories were trending in the US and in the UK. I can’t speak about the importance of my work, that is an equation solved by an audience, but I can speak about the psychological violence those videos and images did, and the need for them to be countered somehow. Barber Shop Chronicles does that. It shows Black men at rest. At play. Talking. Laughing. Joking. Not being statistics, targets, tragedies, spectres or spooks; just humans, breathing in a room. The show has now toured to Australia and New Zealand as well as having two sold out runs at the National Theatre.

Did you envisage the show being this successful?

No. Writing is an act of faith, a prayer. You sit before a sheet of paper or a laptop and pour into it your fears and wishes, conversations you have been having with yourself. At some point, you pass that on to the director and the actors and they have conversations with the script. You can feed into that and tweak things, but from that point on it is largely out of your control. It is not a play until the audience have been invited into the room, until the lights go on. And every instance of the journey feels like a kamikaze mission or an impossible equation to hold in the mind, let alone arrive at some sort of suspicion of an answer. I could not have envisaged any of its success.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?

Be yourself. Chase your own weird, multi-coloured, insecure, deranged, marginalised rabbits down the rabbit hole of your imagination and see what coughs up. See what you find. Enjoy what rabbit holes, what warrens, what mazes your own imagination and your idiosyncrasies lead you down and write yourself out of it. Your own world view, how your flesh and bones and blood enclose the machine of your mind, how it filters the world through your particular sense. These are the most precious things to you as a writer, you have to guard those things with your life because the longevity of your creative life relies on it. Be yourself in a nutshell, that is it.