Contact at STUN, Manchester.
20 October 2018.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Manchester’s Market Street, the shoppers, newspaper-sellers, musicians and street preachers, are the mobile vendors. Every inch of their wheeled carts is covered with phone covers, toys, gadgets and balloons, and the bright multi-coloured nature of their goods makes them hard to miss. We’re aware people are pushing the carts, but do we really see them?
Elmi Ali’s new show Water Seeds Not Stones is inspired by those anonymous on-the-move sellers. However while they tout cheap mass-produced tat, he proffers books and stories, and his character Mamamawodi isn’t going to get lost in any crowd soon.
Sporting a sharp three-piece check suit, sandals and rainbow-hued socks, he pushes a big wooden cart around the stage, its sides fitted with shelves to display his many books. With a strut in his step, he engages us immediately with salesman-like confidence.
There’s nothing scattergun about his patter and chatter. From the off, it’s clear it is worth hanging on his every word. Nothing is wasted, and his sentences overflow with rhythm and rhyme. Words are repeated as part of his character’s verbal tics “hello, hello” and “slowly, slowly”, or for emphasis “Eileen on me, Eileen on me, Eileen on me”, or even to transform them into something else, such as when “book, book, book… book book book-ah” becomes the sound of a chicken – or not a chicken (but that’s another story…). Words are broken down into their component sounds, stretched to become something else, pronunciations are played around with (Wanda, wonder, wander) and meanings travel across languages. There are linguistic misunderstandings, and words are defined and then redefined. It’s a feast for the ears and food for the brain.
Mamamawodi tells of his journey to Market Street. Of how he met an English woman (the aforementioned Eileen) when he was a “beach boy” somewhere in Africa. There’s an implication he was selling his body to tourists, although their relationship develops into something else and he finds himself married and living in Cheshire.
His story-telling is infused with a cheeky but sharp-edged humour. So, Quorn chicken is “the Rachel Dolezal of chicken”, and a romantic exchange between Mamamawodi and his future wife exposes the economic inequalities and motivations at the heart of their relationship – “She said ‘I love you‘. I said ‘I love Europe‘”. He’s no simple jester though, perhaps more a modern-day incarnation of the Shakespearean fool – with his elaborate and witty wordsmithery speaking truth to power.
When his marriage breaks down, he discovers that suddenly “guests turn into parasites”, and his situation mirrors the wider ‘hostile environment’ currently endured by immigrants in the UK. Now hustling on Market Street he fears “interruptions” from the van telling people to ‘go home’, the “dangerous” bus promising £350 million or an unwelcome encounter with the Border Agency.
Knowledge is portrayed as a powerful tool, and Mamamawodi is proud to call himself an intellectual and philosopher. He points casually at novels by Toni Morrison and Paul Beatty, “That one’s about blue eyes, that one’s about selling-out”, and he name-checks Edward Said, Eduardo Galeano and Jack Zipes. It wears its learning lightly, yet the themes and ideas of some of the writers on those mobile shelves permeate the show.
Africa is considered from many angles, “Stanley-Kubrick-stylo”. Ali’s script picks apart the legacy of empire, the exoticisation and othering of people of African origin, the deliberate shrinking of the continent on maps and the patronising view that it is a place that needs saving (especially by people from the West). Mamamawodi performs a charity single of his own, “Africa wash your face, don’t forget your mouth”, to illustrate the stereotyping at play in such initiatives.
Music of a more harmonious sort pops up regularly. I spotted someone surreptitiously Shazam-ing one of the songs, so wasn’t alone in my desire to know more about Ali’s choice of tunes. Ken wa Maria’s Fundamentals was one of them and while it provided an opportunity to get the audience on their feet for a bit of light-hearted participation, it also seemed an apt choice for a show so playful with words. A song with one stanza repeated in several different languages, its title chosen for its “hilarious” sound and the meaning deliberately left open to interpretation. It would seem, even the musical choices are imbued with layers of meaning within the context of the show.
After a busy day “public servicing the public” and selling books from his “community centre” on wheels, Ali’s Mamamawodi relaxes, sips a drink and extols the benefits of soft power. Water Seeds Not Stones seems to exemplify that approach, with its steady stream of consciousness-raising served up with subtle good-humoured charm. A lyrical outpouring of stories, allusion, wordplay and wisdom kept afloat by an infectious and charismatic performance – it’s a richly rewarding experience.