If there is one prop that sticks out in the Barber Shop Chronicles it is the mirror. At the end of each character’s regular cut the barber lifts a hand-held mirror, reflecting their client’s back and sides. It is, of course, a small ritual, signalling closure of the service, a necessary practicality, and in this case a metaphor.
That metaphor represents the quest for identity: how to define oneself as a man, as an African, and, in the UK at least, as a black man and what that might mean. Coming to Sydney Festival hot off the heels of two sell-out runs at the National Theatre in London, Inua Ellams’ new play, directed wittily by Bijan Sheibani, is an ensemble piece about life within the barbershops of Africa.
Ellams, who was born in Nigeria but moved to the UK as a teenager, delivers the goods in a series of vignettes set within five shops in five African cities – Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra and Kampala – and one in Peckham, populated by the African diaspora. (‘I was born a man and it was only when I came to England that I became a black man,’ he once said).
Serving a community role much like that of the British pub, the barbershop is where men, and in this case only men, come to chew the fat, let off steam, laugh, cry, connect and confess. It’s a brilliant move by Ellams, allowing the audience into a rarely seen world, a goldfish bowl where social interaction is both specific to place and splendidly magnified.
How those men look at themselves in the mirror – and how that then affects the way they interact with the group – provides the sense of pathos in the play. A cast of twelve shift with ease between different characters, cities, and accents, while a large wire globe, lit up like a Christmas tree, spins above the stage. Tying all these stories together is a football match, followed obsessively across continents by the men, all footie fanatics.
If these vignettes can seem overly fast, with little time to get to know, and thus to care, about the plethora of characters, more time is spent in Peckham. At the Three Kings barbers Samuel (Bayo Gbadamosi) seethes with resentment against his absent father’s former business partner and friend, Emmanuel, who he wrongly believes cheated his way into ownership of the shop. Meanwhile, Emmanuel, played with grace and authority by Cyril Nri, is battling his own hidden grief. Despite this central tension, this is a performance that pulsates with energy, movement, music and life – even the stage, with its colourful hanging wires and retro barbershop signs, is joyful.
Setting the tone, the production kicks off with the cast happily jiving to tunes. As the audience drifts in, some are plucked into the fold to be offered free hair advice or asked to dance. When the play starts in earnest, and the action switches between the different barbershops, the cast uses chanting and singing – sometimes ritualistic and soothing, other times loud and galvanising – to change the set, skidding around on the barber’s chairs as if they’re supermarket trolleys.
Song is critical in giving the Barber Shop Chronicles a sense of awe. Language, too, possesses a musicality rarely seen in theatre. Ellams is a poet as well as playwright, and this shows in his keenly expressed turn of phrase, perfectly pitched to conjure up the muscular rhythms of speech and the cadences of small talk. Indeed, a debate on Nigerian Pidgin, as well as the use of the N-word, both of which take place at the Three Kings in London, is one of the most memorable moments in the play. The characters, each distinct – a warm, modest professor of linguistics; a boastful smart arse; an earnest second-generation Brit, eager to unpick cultural mores – jive and compete between varying views in conversational bouts of boxing.
Bravado is a central element to this man’s world. One character, overweight and dressed in sparkly bling, boasts about his sexual conquests with both black and white women; another laments his failure to win over a girl he likes but insists she’ll capitulate in the end. Women are only seen through male eyes.
But, beyond the bluster and swagger, is vulnerability. Indeed, Ellams was first inspired to write about the barbershop after hearing about a British mental health program that sought to teach barbers counselling skills. The program never received funding but the seed, for Ellams, was planted. Drawing on this, fathers – in particular those who aren’t around and those who beat their sons – is a theme Ellmas returns to again and again. Then there are the fathers of the nation, too: hotly discussing politics, the characters rail against the leaders – Mugabe, even Mandela – who have let them down.
The play begins with humour: a man banging on the shop door at dawn wakes up his barber to get a haircut (an ‘aerodynamic’ one, no less). Why? He is eager to impress his potential new employers to become a bus driver.
The end mimics the start, but this time it reeks of poignancy. As another day draws to a close an eighteen-year-old boy is desperate to be let into the Three Kings. He needs to have his hair trimmed before his audition for a play tomorrow.
Emmanuel agrees, keeping open the shop, and the two, as always, begin to talk. The boy, an aspiring actor, tells him that the role is that of a ‘strong black man’ – but, having been raised solely by his mother, he isn’t sure what that means or what is expected of him.
That drive – of hope and fear, of being defined by others and then looking at oneself, hard, in the mirror – sums up the play. In an interview in 2017, Ellmas told the Guardian he wrote it in part to promote a different narrative to that which was circulating around the time of the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘People have become accustomed to seeing people of colour brutalised,’ he said. ‘And the counter to that is to show people of colour beautifying themselves, spending lots of time on their physical selves. Barber Shop Chronicles plays into the dynamic where people just want to see joy and magic.’ In that, at least, he has succeeded.
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