The London-based producer, which is a joint venture with NBCUniversal International Studios, secured the rights to the play with Ellams, who recently created The National Theatre’s Barbershop Chronicles, adapting the series into a four-part series.
The play, which combines poetry, spoken word and graphic art, and the TV remake, are set across Nigeria, Egypt, England and China and follows two Nigerian foster brothers, Matthew and Muhammed, whose handmade t-shirts become a global streetwear brand. Against the backdrop of tragedy their success is tainted by blood as their personal lives and growing business empire cross the lines of globalised capitalism, sectarianism and homophobia.
The show begins in 1993 when the grieving widow of a Muslim family adopts a young Christian boy in a show of defiance against the sectarian violence of their home in northern Nigeria. Matthew instantly bonds with her biological son Muhammed despite the deep prejudice they face at school. The boys turn the bullying they experience on its head and begin to create and sell designs on simple black t-shirts, by the time they are teenagers their collection has become a successful brand. On the launch of their biggest collection yet, when sectarian tensions are ready to boil over, a journalist reveals Muhammed’s sexuality forcing the brothers to flee Nigeria and take on an epic journey across the globe.
Ellams said, “Black T-shirt Collection was a joyful, painful and intensely personal story to write. I loved performing it as a play across the world. Adapting it for television is an opportunity to introduce a bigger audience to the fragile, beautiful brothers, their impossibly complex relationship and the worlds they precariously negotiate. I am excited and looking forward to developing this with Working Title.”
Working Title TV Head of Development Surian Fletcher-Jones told Deadline that the project came about after development exec Sami El-Hadi saw Ellams’ Barbershop Chronicles. Fletcher-Jones said that Ellams had begun developing Black T-Shirt Collection as a TV screenplay, which is when the company got involved.
“Inua writes through such a personal lens. It goes from the streets of Nigeria up to the dizzy heights of the global fashion industry. It’s funny and warm. What’s unique about him is his ability to take on huge themes to do with global capitalism and sectarianism but to put through an intimate lens and be funny,” she said.
Jeff Wachtel, President of NBCUniversal International Studios, told Deadline that his brief is to find “breathtakingly original ideas” that will work for a global audience. He said the international division of the U.S. studio had to work hard to nab Ellams, who he said “had the pick of the litter”. “We wanted this one so after Surian brought it in, one of the things that Inua was concerned about was that it would have the broadest possible audience for his work. As a Nigerian playwright and poet, he wanted to make sure that it would have the biggest platform in Africa. One of the things that our team did… to show him that we were the best positioned company to take this to the global market and our EMEA, we had the African division of our distribution team put together a presentation to show how we take shows to market in Africa,” he said.
Each episode is set in a different country: Nigeria, Egypt, UK and China. The production company, which is run by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, is currently in talks with feature directors and is planning to take it out as a package to broadcasters in the next four weeks. “The television landscape has gone from being incredibly parochial, which I’ve slightly struggled with, to now, that it’s so expansive and so welcoming of voices that span cultures and continents,” said Fletcher-Jones
“If we can be that bridge from great playwriting to the broader context of TV and screenwriting with that multiplied audience, if we can be the bridge as the international studio for UK talent and helping them bring to the U.S., the SVOD audience and a broader global audience, that’s our principal function,” added Wachtel.