First published in The Times, Monday October 28 2019
In Inua Ellams’s acclaimed play, the barber’s shop is much more than a place to go for a haircut. “This is a space for talk,” says Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), the proprietor of the busy gents hairdresser that provides the play’s recurring setting. There is a sense throughout that no subject is off limits.
If Ellams is not the first playwright to alight on conversations between hairdressers and their clients as a rich starting point for drama, Barber Shop Chronicles, which explores black masculinity through an array of characters across the African diaspora, takes that idea to new levels of intricacy. In doing so, Ellams blows fresh air over typical representations of black men’s lives. No wonder the play, commissioned by Fuel and the National Theatre, has resonated with audiences around the world since its premiere in 2017.
Pic: Marc Brenner
The London-set action – in which tensions between Emmanuel and headstrong Samuel (Mohammed Mansari), the young son of his former business partner at The Three Kings, threaten to boil over – forms the play’s spine. This is interspersed with vignettes set in shops and shacks in Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa that overlap and connect, often in subtle ways. The detail is tellingly observed, so that questions of masculinity, national identity, language and communication arise naturally.
Pic: Marc Brenner
The default mood of Ellams’s play (which is choreographed with terrific energy and clarity by Bijan Sheibani) is one of empathy, reinforcing the idea of the barber’s as a place of sanctuary and acceptance, even for those who have transgressed. We bear witness to clashes, notably the debate over gay rights that takes place in the shop in Kampala, and the scene in Johannesburg, in which one customer outlines his struggle to forgive the atrocities of the apartheid era. Even the most serious confrontations are shot-through with humour and levity, and there is much that is laugh-out-loud funny, from the boastful posturing of Demmy Lapido’s “Bad Boy” to the completely bald man who settles into the chair and asks: “How long can you cut my hair?”