Inua Ellams’s Barbershop Chronicles is likely one of the best pieces of global theatre to come out of this young century. In it, he weaves together different strands of the African diaspora to highlight the unity, diversity, and sheer life-force of a people separated by centuries of circumstance. That same charm and liveliness, along with the solemn gravity of the refugee crisis, are present in Borders & Crossings, a mix of four of his shorter works, produced for the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.
Centered around the theme of forced migration, the Zoom-performed piece features the playwright himself reciting two brief poems before actors Mylène Gomera and Sopè Dirisu take over the two dramatic scenes.
The first poem, titled “Fuck Borders,” honors the courage undertaken by emigrants and refugees with the same righteous intensity the second poem, “Fuck Border Guards,” uses to condemn those who take actual time out of their actual lives to enforce geopolitical boundaries and divisions. Ellams recites each with a calm authority that lands his points efficiently and without soapboxing.
“Dolphins” follows a group of children as they covertly migrate across the Sudanese border, lightening the mood with jokes while forging a makeshift family throughout their journey. Switching from in-the-moment dialogue to future interrogations of how their experience will inform their adult psyches, it taps into that same mixture of electric joy and lived nuance at which Ellams excels. The piece showcases his mastery of loading the weight of history onto casual conversation and should absolutely be developed into a longer work.
The final piece, “Icarus,” beautifully transplants the Greek myth to present-day Lampedusa, an Italian island that serves as an entry point for sailing refugees. Stuck in this “island prison,” seeing boat after boat of escapees sink or get turned away, Ikenna, an inventive young girl, decides to take to the sky. If the original myth evokes the virtue of tragedy, Ellams’s retelling carries the tragedy of the virtuous—a sobering tale of dreams approached, but unreached.
Borders & Crossings is a brief and unpretentious display, its excellence undercut by the limitations of its Zoom presentation. Gomera, Dirisu, and Ellams are perfect matches for the material in their truthful, un-actorly performances, but these are pieces that would benefit from the electricity of live theatre. They serve as a reminder that Ellams, with whose work we have not been graced enough, deserves not only larger stages, but larger audiences. He is a gifted writer whose voice echoes that of an escaped Icarus who has lived to tell his tale, and begs to tell of those who do not have the chance.