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.
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.