In his new play at the National Theatre, Inua Ellam has brilliantly captured the unique world of African barber shops whilst tastefully weaving issues affecting black males into this everyday normality. Yet somehow the overall atmosphere throughout remains vibrant, joyful, and potentially nostalgic for some.
From entering the foyer of the Dorfman Theatre to walking into the auditorium, infectious music by influential black artists by the likes of Tupac, Lauryn Hill and Stormzy welcomes the audience to share interactions with the characters on stage who are already at work cutting hair, dancing, and singing along to well-loved tunes.
The play begins with a goal being scored during a football match between Chelsea and Barcelona which becomes a recurring topic of conversation in all six barber shops we glimpse in and out of during the piece, located in London and around Africa. This minor detail is only one of the many ways Ellam shows similarities between characters. Through casual conversation in a space where men chat amongst themselves and harmful perceptions of black masculinity seem to dominate, characters discuss women, alcohol, violent upbringings, Nigerian Pidgin, the use of the N word, apartheid, and leaders such as Mugabe and Mandela. The easy-going tone with which these subjects are approached only highlight that this is part of the everyday lived experience of black men; although their opinions are not the same, there is no escaping the ramifications of slavery. Yet the idea of barber shops as a space where men can talk with ease begins to offer the solution that through conversation the expectations of what black masculinity looks like can be challenged.
Director Bijan Sheibani sees to it that the audience whole-heartedly enjoy this experience. Transitions between scenes include choreographed movement sequences in which barber shop capes are flapped around to favourites like Kanye West’s Gold Digger or beautifully executed acapella versions of African folk songs such as Shosholoza. The latter had me welling up during the performance as long forgotten memories emerged of my dad singing me that particular song to sleep as a child. The actors, most of which play multiple roles, are truly phenomenal in representing the characters, but also giving the play its vivacity and keeping us smiling throughout.
Some moments did create conflicting responses in the audience when jokes left us unsure of whether it was ok to laugh, or what kind of audience member had the right to laugh. This often captured the divide between regressive traditions and a progressive Africa that is trying to heal.
A real testament to the success of the piece was that it was the most diverse audience many remembered seeing at The National which goes to show: if you make theatre for black and ethnic minorities, they will come!
Written by Kaleya Baxe.
Barber Shop Chronicles is returning to the NT in November 2017.