One-man spoken word or theatre? Black T-Shirt Collection

Is the one-man show an example of theatre or spoken word? Is it both? Does the question even matter? Even if it doesn’t matter, I always find myself asking these perhaps insular questions, like last night when poet Inua Ellams opened Black T-Shirt Collection at The Arts Centre Melbourne. He essentially tells a story of two Nigerian brothers who set up an international designer t-shirt business, and the complications with leaving their home. Themes of identity and sexuality shine through. The story is compelling enough, the delivery provokes something more in the audience.

He is a lone actor (or poet) on stage. Minimal set. One box he sometimes holds or moves around, and a subtle soundscape with intermittent sound effects. The most haunting sounds are what you think is a predatory bird flapping its wings.

But the rhythm and cadence of his voice make me think he’s essentially performing one very long narrative poem. It’s a testament to his delivery that he can hold our attention for that long, the important details sticking in. All the important details are in his words, in his speaking, never fully acted out on stage, except for a couple of mimed actions. There are singular lines that stand as poetic. I found myself reacting those, but I couldn’t click in a theatre! I suppose those lines shine through in all kinds of writing, be it poetry, prose, theatre, even film. If I closed my eyes for the whole show, would I still understand it all? I suspect I would’ve without discounting the effectiveness of his minor movements.

Is that the difference between theatre and poetry? Theatre tries to recreate the physical sides of the story, the dialogue augmenting it and part of that recreation whereas the poet uses words and images to describe something somewhere else.

The show, the poetry, his delivery is all effective, evokes an investment in the characters over that hour or hour and a half.

I’ve seen shows billed as one-man shows, or one-person shows billed as theatre or fringe shows. Sometimes even on the fringes, it seems like some want to avoid adding the label spoken word or poetry to a physical show. In Black T-Shirt collection it’s the words and his speaking that are the core of the performance. The rest is an accessory, and a minimal one, so it appears to me to be much more spoken word than theatre, even more so than many one-man spoken word shows I’ve seen elsewhere that have been billed as spoken word. Outside, after the show, he had copies of a collection of poems for sale. I suppose theatre has a larger, wealthier industry, that brings audiences and a reputation with it, that spoken word just can’t yet. Bigger name productions, like this, that had the courage to more strongly bill it as such would lift others. At least that’s what I always hope.

Black T-Shirt Collection runs until September 10 at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

Annie Solah