You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Black T-Shirt Collection

Not, as the title might indicate, a show about heavy metal fans, Inua Ellams' solo show "Black T-Shirt Collection" tackles the globalization of the fashion industry, inter-religious conflict and anti-gay prejudice in Nigeria as well as the ways success can strain kinship ties.

With: Inua Ellams.

Not, as the title might indicate, a show about heavy metal fans, Inua Ellams’ solo show “Black T-Shirt Collection” tackles the globalization of the fashion industry, inter-religious conflict and anti-gay prejudice in Nigeria as well as the ways success can strain kinship ties. It does so via the story of two foster brothers whose successful t-shirt business takes them from their Nigerian hometown to Cairo, London and, finally and fatally, to a Chinese sweatshop. But while Ellams’ writing is fluid and his performance engaging, this minimalist 75-minute monologue can’t accommodate the novel’s worth of themes and narratives he’s trying to communicate.

Thierry Lawson’s production, visiting the National Theater as part of an English tour, has writer-performer Ellams standing against a textured backdrop of pasted-on black tees onto which Ellams’ own drawings are periodically projected, advancing the storytelling in a style that recalls a graphic novel.

Popular on Variety

Story starts with Matthew at home in Nigeria and not coping at all well with his brother Muhammed’s recent death. This is one of several narrative frames setting up that things end catastrophically for both brothers, but it launches the show on a wobbly note because its switchbacks between first and third person narration are at their most confusing and layered here. Ellams’ skill with differing accents and vocal tones only goes so far in helping auds discern who’s who.

Things smooth out in an extended narrative flashback passage in which we hear of the teenage boys’ inspiration for their business: a dusty bootprint left by an older boy on the front of the t-shirt of teenage Matthew, who’s bullied because he’s a Christian adopted into a Muslim family. Artistic Matthew turns this oppression into inspiration by designing a boot-print tee, charismatic Muhammed fronts the fledgling fashion enterprise, and biz rip-roars for eight years until a journalist catches Muhammed kissing another man. Fearing he’ll be gay-bashed if not killed if he stays in Nigeria, the brothers flee to Sudan and trek across the Egyptian desert to set up shop in Cairo’s famous Khan el-Khalili souk.

This is, to put it mildly, an adventure-packed story, but Ellams moves so quickly through episodes that he can’t really engage with the rich issues and locations he touches on. Crucially it is never clear whether he’s critiquing or celebrating the brothers’ commodification of their own experiences, nor do we find out what prompts the role reversal that has Matthew signing a contract to manufacture shirts in China as Muhammed develops a social conscience and becomes Ellams’ anti-globalization mouthpiece. Thus what he is saying via the gothic tragedy of the show’s ending is never clear.

The attempt to craft a heightened storytelling form to exploit Ellams’ polymathic talents is admirable, but narrative ambitions here outstrip accomplishment.

Black T-Shirt Collection

Cottesloe, National Theater, London; 400 seats; £15 $24 top

Production: A Fuel presentation of a play in one act written by Inua Ellams. Directed by Thierry Lawson.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Michael Vale; lighting, Michael Nabarro; sound, Emma Laxton; graphic design, Ellams. Opened April 13, 2012, reviewed April 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast: With: Inua Ellams.

More Legit

  • Warner Bros. Pictures trailer launch event

    Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu Tease 'In the Heights' Movie

    Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Jon M. Chu and star Anthony Ramos took the train to the top of the world to offer a sneak peek of “In the Heights,” Warner Bros.’ big-screen adaptation of Miranda’s (other) hit musical. “I’m thrilled we’re here, and I’m thrilled we’re uptown,” Miranda rhapsodized to a packed crowd at a cozy [...]

  • Lucas Hnath

    Listen: Lucas Hnath's Own Play Gives Him Nightmares

    Tony-nominated playwright Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”) has two shows in New York this season: a monologue based on the real-life experiences of his mother, and a ghost story. One of them gave him nightmares — but it wasn’t the ghost story. Listen to this week’s podcast below: He explained why on the [...]

  • Greater Clements review

    'Greater Clements': Theater Review

    The American Dream and all of its values have taken quite a beating lately. Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Bruce Springsteen’s recent “Western Stars” album, even Ralph Lauren in the documentary “Very Ralph” show us how this country and all of its totems and merits have gone asunder. No dreams are more crushed, [...]

  • Harry Connick Jr Walk of Fame

    Harry Connick Jr. on Returning to Broadway

    Harry Connick Jr. is headed back to Broadway with a three-week limited engagement celebration of legendary songwriter Cole Porter. The actor and musician came up with the concept for the show and is also directing. “I love Broadway and if I had two careers one of them would be only Broadway just because I love [...]

  • Jagged Little Pill review

    Broadway Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

    Nearly 25 years after “Jagged Little Pill” hit the shelves of record stores, Alanis Morissette’s innovative 1995 album has arrived on Broadway under the muscular direction of Diane Paulus, who launched this galvanic production at the American Repertory Theater. The show’s supportive book by screenwriter Diablo Cody interprets Morissette’s musical idiom as a universal domestic [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content