“The barber shop is a lighthouse, a beacon … where men come to be men.”
Barber Shop Chronicles is a wonderfully warm, vibrant and funky piece of theatre. Colourful and witty, with an irresistibly foot-tapping musical score, it nevertheless manages to probe some really dark and thorny issues around masculinity, relationships, culture, language and politics.
The play’s simple premise is that, for Africans and the African diaspora, the barber shop is a ‘sacred space’, where men gather together for much more than a haircut – a place where they can sit, listen and talk. And the talk is much the same whether the barber shop is here in the UK or across the African continent. Amidst the jokes, the boasts and the posturing, relationships are built and real concerns are thrashed out.
Over the course of a single day, we visit barber shops in London, Kampala, Lagos, Accra, Harare and Johannesburg. Our journeys are punctuated by beautifully choreographed song and dance routines; chairs are spun and capes twirled in gloriously uplifting musical introductions to each location. And when we ‘arrive’, we witness the banter, arguments and stories that flow freely between barbers and their customers, as the aprons go on and the clippers begin to hum. But what we are really seeing is an African (male) cultural heritage, refracted through different local traditions and melding with universal issues of love, power, family and identity. (And – of course – football!) The result is a theatrical celebration of this heritage, brimming with humanity.
There is a great deal of poignancy here; displacement, disappointment, bereavement, betrayal, loneliness, rejection …all are evident in this microcosm of human life. It is remarkable, then, that Barber Shop Chronicles is, overwhelmingly, a joyous experience. The tone is established from the moment we step into the theatre; the pre-set welcomes audience members into the barber shop, to sit in the chairs, be gowned up and given simulated hair cuts. There is a buzz of chatter, music and laughter as selfies are taken and actors and audience mill around together. It is impossible not to feel drawn into this congenial space. Before the play even starts, we know what it feels like to enter the barber shop – and, like the customers who come (often daily), we want to go there and experience its embrace.
Inua Ellams’ writing is razor sharp and full of insight, complexity and challenge. In genial exchanges about the changing nature of fatherhood, characters reflect on the brutality of traditional paternal discipline with an extraordinary lack of bitterness or blame; “We didn’t call it abuse, so it wasn’t.” Elsewhere, in a heated discussion about the acceptability or otherwise of the n-word, a customer asserts that “by reclaiming the word, we are moving past slavery.” These are profound and heavy issues, fraught with political and personal controversy, but Ellams’ script deploys believable characters and lightning changes of pace to ensure that they leave their mark without feeling either trivialised or laboured.
Brilliantly funny, visually electric and positively fizzing with energy, Barber Shop Chronicles is simply an exhilarating watch (and worth seeing for the scene changes alone!)
Photograph: Marc Brenner