Confidant, counsellor, friend and sparring partner, the relationship between a man and his barber is an intimate and long-lasting thing.
The traditional barbershop is often at the heart of a community, a rallying point for local men to come, sit, talk and sometimes to even have their hair cut. Inua Ellams new play The Barbershop Chronicles examines their particular role as a safe place to debate the changing nature of black masculine identity, politics and Africa’s cultural legacy.
Set in a handful of communities across Africa, the play visits each one in turn, introducing the audience to cast of characters each with their own local problems, aspirations and fears, but linked to a single London barbers where the staff and customers represent an array of black African and Jamaican ancestry.
Anchored by the London story about a feud between Emmanuel and Samuel, and a Chelsea vs. Barcelona football match which everyone is watching, the men talk about their lives.
Ellams’ play is essentially a tapestry of experience that cleverly articulates many of the questions about identity formation and dealing with a cultural legacy that takes in the end of Empire, slavery, repression and the erosion of traditional forms of language and culture through the influence of English and US customs.
At heart, The Barbershop Chronicles is about the tension between past and future, asking difficult questions about where power lies and whether black communities should cling to their experiences or try to reclaim them to create a more aspirational future – questions the audience is left to answer.
What makes this show so exciting is how Ellams uses comedy and narrative to weave these bigger issues into an entertaining and energetic 110-minute piece. It’s rare for theatre to feel this alive and as the audience take their seats, the cast greet people in character, offer them haircuts and dance to the booming music, it’s as though you’re at a carnival rather than the theatre.
And this energy continues through the show which, having created a bond with the audience already, draws you into refreshingly realistic worlds that are as sensitively drawn as they are full of banter and spirit.
It’s a real ensemble piece with 12 actors playing multiple roles who entirely fill the in-the-round Dorfman space, especially during the cleverly choreographed scene changes designed by Movement and Music Directors Aline David and Michael Henry, whose eclectic musical choices cleverly reflect the different parts of Africa and various musical traditions that clearly separate it from the Jamaican sounds we hear more often.
Although the performances are consistently excellent, Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel stands out as a barber whose job is to put on a public face for his clients and later in the play the truth about his life is revealed in a genuinely heartfelt moment. Sule Rimi has charisma and great comic swagger in a number of roles, while Fisayo Akinade, Peter Bankole and Hammed Animashaun get their chance to shine.
The Barbershop Chronicles is an ambitious piece that attempts to cover so many pertinent issues from absent fathers to national politics, history, homosexuality, masculinity and stolen cows, that it cannot engage with any one topic in depth, and occasionally becomes a little preachy.
And while the play could do with a slight trim around the sides, the barbershop is a well-chosen microcosm where events are debated, the world is set to rights and life just happens.