Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre, along with its performance stage at The Drake, is renowned for its singular outlook and inventive takes on contemporary theater from Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Playwright Inua Ellams’s tale of two twin brothers — born on Nigerian Independence Day and separated at birth — focuses on Black Britain and its people.
Setting the shape of the production is the naming ceremony, that happens under the first full moon of the twins’ lives in Nigeria. One brother (X) cries out and refuses to be named, while the other (Y), laughs, creating a metaphor for the play to rely on as the boys’ stories are told.
At 7 months, the children are separated when Y is taken to England by their mother. X remains in Nigeria until later, when they reunite. Y’s life is one of order, and full-circle, as an adult, he takes a branding job in advertising where he names products in London. X’s life is very different from his brother’s, chaotic and spontaneous. “It’s a world where myth intertwines with reality, where the past catches up to us, and where a name spells destiny,” writes Tom Reing, Inis Nua’s Founder and Artistic Director.
Seemingly a perfect for fit for Inis Nua, “Untitled” is vastly different from other productions. Chicago-to Philadelphia transplant, direction Jerrell Henderson, notes how other Inis Nua productions are about the “white experience of the U.K.”
Henderson said, “As they were telling a different sort of story, they wanted to branch out and work with a different kind of director. Henderson said, “Inis Nua’s top brass wanted someone who fit that world better.”
An out African-American man, Henderson said he is excited that the company is presenting a different sort of representation. “I am a director of color tackling a story of people of color,” said Henderson, adding that through conversations with Inis Nua and Tom Reing, he realized the company wanted to expand itself and the conversations being had through the theatre.
“What it means to be British can be many things and includes many different facets,” said Henderson, and this move by Inis Nua “allows them to tap in to a newer, different market as Philadelphia has a large Nigerian population. It’s good to mix things up and bring other flavors to the table.”
With greater inclusion, dialogue elevates. Diversity is necessary to paint an accurate portrait of a place and time.
Keith Illidge, the actor who plays both brothers in “Untitled” said he is thrilled to do Ellam’s one-man, two-character show. Illidge said the concept of family is what appeals to him.
The actor was even more pleased – as a fellow Chicago to Philly transplant who had worked with Henderson at Allen’s Lane – to be teamed with a director with whom he could share a stagey shorthand. “Who did I know would give 100%? Who did I know had quiet strength of vision? Jerrell. Plus, his ease and demeanor is so smooth. He was an actor, so he knows how to talk to us in the process.”
While both men discuss how Chicago and Philadelphia have similar theater scenes — intimate and family like — Henderson believes that both also hold food and restaurant life up as a totem. “I refuse to tell you which place has better food,” Illidge said with a laugh.
As for “Untitled,” Henderson wanted to tell a story of two brothers at a distance, and he needed to make it urgent for himself and his audience. “The ‘why now’ of the story,” he said of its urgency. “It’s the two sides of a coin. Whatever one brother has, the other one lacks, and in order for them to be whole, they somehow have to come together. You have the old world of X who is still in Nigeria and those traditions, and you have the new world of Y in Britain and in the world of branding. Past and present. They have to fulfill each other’s destinies by coming together. With all that, I want to keep everyone on the edge of their seat. You have to own your whole self, and I want the audience to feel that.”
“Untitled” runs through May 12 at Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake. For information and tickets, visit inisnuatheatre.org.