Borders and Crossings

Inua Ellams
Fuel at Under the Radar Festival
Public Theater, New York

Inua Ellams Credit: Fuel

This 30-minute combination of two very short poems and a pair of rather longer poetic dramas focuses on the plight of refugees, a popular subject for often unflattering news headlines through the summer and autumn.

The thoughtful writings of Inua Ellams are delivered for Fuel via Zoom as part of the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival, which this year is taking place wholly online and is free.

Bijan Sheibani directs Mylène Gomera and Ṣọpẹ́ Dirisu in the pair of dramas, the first tragic and shocking, the second somehow hopeful and amusing.

Dolphins follows the attempts by a trio of teenagers from Eritrea to find sanctuary in Europe. Starting out in a Sudanese refugee camp, new friends Senebesh and Dani are innate storytellers informally adopted by the more streetwise Abbas, who takes them under his wing.

Losing companions on a constant basis, they cross the desert in an over-stuffed lorry, eventually arriving in Tripoli. This is only the start of the travellers’ woes, since they then need to raise funds for a perilous ride in a boat too flimsy to reach their destination of Lampedusa. The story is literally shocking, only redeemed by the news that Senebesh has been relating her side of the tale years later from home in England.

Icarus is connected, picking up the baton in Lampedusa where the occupants of the refugee camp have a single goal in mind: crossing a short stretch of the Mediterranean to reach the Italian mainland. Ikenna, aka Rust, is a sparky girl who has inherited her father’s mechanical and engineering skills and puts them to good use.

While others bemoan their fates and wait for something good to happen, knowing that in reality they are as likely to be returned home as allowed entry to the new Nirvana, she takes positive action. Her two names rather give the game away in that this young, gender-swapped latter-day Icarus builds herself wings and soars off a cliff heading for a new life.

Anyone who knows the myth may second-guess the final outcome but, if nothing else, this imaginative piece does not end with the heroine flying too close to the sun.

There can be little doubt that, when writing Borders and Crossings, Inua Ellams’s primary goal was to raise awareness of the perils faced by those attempting to reach the United Kingdom (and other European countries) seeking asylum.

The stomach-churning descriptions in Dolphins deliberately use extreme situations and images but will undoubtedly hit the target with anyone except the most hard-hearted in society. Sadly, that group is prominent in governments that decide whether asylum seekers are treated as human beings or greedy foreigners keen to milk our civilised society.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher