Black T-shirt Collection by Inua Ellams: review

Anna Chen – 19 April 2012

This review first appeared in the Morning Star 19th April 2012

Black T-shirt Collection
Inua Ellams — Cottesloe Theatre, NT
review by Anna Chen, 16 April 2012

In Inua Ellam’s 75-minute monologue about how to be successful whilst keeping your soul unsullied, Matthew and Muhammed, two Nigerian foster-brothers from across the Muslim-Christian divide, set up their eponymous Black T-shirt Collection, a hip clothing venture which begins with a kick in the chest and ends with something far nastier. Their upwardly-mobile journey takes them from the streets of Nigeria, (via the swanky scotch-and-Ribena set) to Egypt, consumerist Europe and sweatshop China.

As their T-shirt brand goes global, the young entrepreneurs live the petit bourgeois dream where creativity and a bit of luck propel you into the upper stratum of society. Of course it goes sour, but in the meantime, Ellam explores issues including homophobia, social inequality and exploitation.

With his studious specs and relaxed thoughtful delivery, Ellam cuts a dash onstage as the multi-talented bright spark. His language has been acknowledged as beautiful, and indeed it is. His graphic design skills are also in evidence in the projected black and white comic frames that illustrate the story.

Over-egging factory exploitation in China provides a powerful climax, rich in metaphor. However, it is uncomfortably reminiscent of Mike Daisey who invented gun-toting factory guards, child workers and industrial injuries for his hit show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, just in case we didn’t think the real deal was bad enough. Ellams gives us a scene out of Bosch:

“There are children here, least a hundred of them, scruffy, eyes inflamed , fingers swollen from dipping hands in vats of boiling water …” Then there are those giant dye cauldrons: ” … its blades slice the churning water, they slash the black broth like swords in moonlight.”

Really? Is Ellams sure about this? Beautifully written it may be but this scene of bovine passivity is at best anachronistic when we’re seeing the end of the era of cheap labour in China. Despite the thwarting of China’s 2006 attempts to relax its draconian trade union laws when the American Chamber of Commerce (backed by their European counterparts) demanded the government nix workers’ power, Chinese workers are slowly winning better rights and conditions.

Far from Chinese workers’ struggle being a source of inspiration, increasingly, China stands for a horror location in the mental landscape where western guilt can be assuaged; another form of imperialism where the Chinese are the extras in western writers’ stories. You get the examination of the inner life, the Chinese get the bit-part player credit.

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