Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company presents the American premiere of Nigerian-British playwright Inua Ellams’s UNTITLED—directed by Jerrell L. Henderson and featuring Keith Ilidge as twin Nigerian brothers X and Y.
The play opens with X screaming out. He rejects his name after a special naming ceremony. Y, on the other hand, accepts his name. After the brothers’ parents fight, they go their separate ways—with the father giving up on X and the mother taking Y and leaving for good.
Nigeria’s Yoruba culture and mythology, with its strong belief that every man has “Ayanmo” or a destiny, influence the play and the lives of the brothers. While Y quietly accepts the tradition and his name, X goes against tradition and denies his destiny.
West Africa, with its rich history of oral storytelling from proverbs (“it takes a village”) to legends (“why leopards hunt on the left side”), influenced Ellams’ personal stories. For example, X, the defiant antagonist, uses this concept in the play to recant his exploits. His many escapades captivate the audience and draw them into his rebellious life.
The playwright who, as a Nigerian in exile, seems to speak partly through both X and Y: “There is always an audience,” X says early in the play and joins a drum troupe, is mentored by an elder, and becomes a medicine man, traveling widely but never really seems to connect with people. As a result, people begin to refer to him as the “Nameless One.”
X actually believes himself better than his elders from whom he should be learning. His prospective ventures go awry due to his hubris. Eventually, the villagers grow tired of him and start to call him a “brother-less bastard.” After being taunted, X flies into a rage and beats a former friend to a pulp. X, out of control, even fights the people of his village, the elders, The Spirits, and his own destiny. However, in spite of his rebellion, he never seems to truly find his way forward.
Far from the forests of Nigeria and the chaotic life of X, his twin Y goes about his day-to-day existence in the UK where he works with a name-branding company. Y’s life presents the “African diaspora” that many immigrants face. On his birthday, disconnected from his past and his brother, Y finds himself in a local club in London. Celebrating Nigeria’s Independence Day, the people sing along with 50 cent’s, “In Da Club,” changing the lyrics to “Go, Naija [Nigeria], it’s your birthday.” Y hears them as if they were singing to him. Still at the club, Y soon feels a strange feeling coming over him, especially when he hears the trees back home calling to him—first as a whisper then, later, as a shriek.
Y tries to continue with his routine in life but, after five days, he can no longer take the pain. He goes to visit his mother who lives in the same London neighborhood and finds her house full of dirt. His mother and the elder who had once counseled his brother, X, show up and encourage Y to move back to Nigeria. The young man who had accepted his destiny realizes he needs to return to his place of birth to aid in his brother’s existential struggles.
The writer brings out the power and pull of Nature that eventually leads to a visible connection between the brothers—perhaps a search for their roots, figuratively and literally. Almost like a secret code, “brother, name, destiny” repeat in Y’s mind as he makes a life-changing decision. Both brothers recognize that they need each other to be whole—bound together by destiny.
The playwright’s personal story
Playwright Inua Ellams, was born in Nigeria but grew up in the UK, after leaving his home country due to rising religious extremism. He may have used these two opposing lives to speak to his own struggles with diaspora and blending his two identities into one. Ellams who is also a performer, acted in the role of X and Y in UK premiere of UNTITLED.
The only actor in the play, Keith Illidge, from Delaware, brings the audience in with his charisma but keeps their attention with his wide range—he shouts, in a Nigerian accent, and saunters as the rebellious “Nameless One.” Half way through, he stammers, in a British accent, and stumbles as the more straight-laced Y.
The director and the creative team
Director Jerrell L. Henderson brings this drama to life with the help of an amazing creative team:
Scenic Designer Marie Laster created a beautiful set of an African landscape, with a tree as its centerpiece, making the stage look much larger and giving the play something tangible, especially when there are no set changes.
The skills of Lighting Designer Daniel Schreckengost and Sound Designer Daniel Ison carry the audience through the emotional ups and downs of the characters. In the first half of the play, with the “Nameless One” contemplating life out in the wilderness by a campfire, purple bleeds to red to orange with the chattering of insects and voices in the distance. Thunder claps and rain pours down upon X as he shouts at The Spirits.
In the second half, the gray lighting reflects Y’s own life as he goes through his routine in England. The screeching in his mind is painful to hear as the African spirits call him back home. All these elements combined add to the play’s unique identity.
In this production, Henderson presents the heart of Inua Ellams’ UNTITLED powerfully: two brothers who must first find each other before they can find themselves. They exist like yin and yang, one life balancing out the other.
[Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 341 S Hicks St, Philadelphia] April 24-May 12, 2019, inisnuatheatre.org