Black barbershops are much more just than places where one can get a skin fade, even if only after unbearably long waiting times. They’re described as “beacon[s] of community” in Inua Ellams’ exceptional new production, ‘Barbershop Chronicles’, which is now playing at The National Theatre. The play is a stunning exploration of black masculinity, as well as of social issues including nationalism, apartheid and homophobia to name but a few. Black barbershops, both in the play and in real life, serve as a unique vantage point from which to observe the order of things.
When in the play the owner of a barbershop in Nigeria refers to himself as its “director”, the audience erupts into laughter. He glares in response, unappreciative of our mocking of his capitalist aspirations. But in the subtext of this hilarious exchange, which is only one example of the play’s interactivity and uncanny ability to elicit audience response, is a more serious commentary: in a Western context where black men are often badly affected by unemployment, and beyond, in often stifled, developing economies where jobs aren’t as universally abundant in the first instance, the proliferation of black barbershops should be recognised as a display of indomitability, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, many are one-stop-shops for everything imaginable! Haircuts might be continuously interrupted as barbers serve customers waiting to transfer money or ship barrels of items back home, or buy items ranging from durags and hairbrushes to toothbrushes and (dubious) designer belts.
The play pans across Nigeria; South Africa; Zimbabwe; Uganda; Ghana and England; the audience watches and listens as conversations and debate unfolds. Discussing women perhaps predictably, one character laments that you cannot pull hair extensions in the “heat of passion” – he seems to be suggesting that this contributes to his interest in white women. This slightly uncomfortable exchange is an example of the play’s frank indictments of the misogyny that can often be heard in barbershops, but it also crucially illustrates the particular ways that this objectification affects black women especially. Yet the play is one of sublime nuance and complexity. The historical caricaturing of black men as compulsively or even predatorily hyper-sexual is resisted, both by the inclusion of healthy, non-perverse discussions of relationships, such as in the character Emmanuel’s reflections on his wife, as well as by the prevalence of a large array of other topics. Through this, Ellams mindfully pushes back against the usual reduction of black men to tiresome representations of primal lust and violence. He asserts that we are holistic, thinking and feeling human beings.
Pausing intermittently to shout in unison at the TV in reaction to developments in the Chelsea vs. Barcelona game, the characters share their views on various topics. The role of Christianity in colonialism. The enduring pain that historical racial slurs inflict. The complicated legacies of Mugabe and Mandela. Etymology, and the systematic inhibition of African dialects like pidgin, “the language of rebellion” which was banned in schools in various locations in Africa. Moments of over-assertive pseudo intellectualism as is often performed by individuals in barbershops are balanced with tactful presentations of sincerely informative historical insights – the barbershop is as such a site of negotiation, of learning and unlearning.
The central theme of conversation in the play, however, is fatherhood. While some characters reflect on the “heavy handedness” of their fathers’ discipline, criticising a version of masculinity that promotes displays of anger over any other emotion, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) in his wisdom retorts that a “real man” avoids fighting. Ellams grapples with the widely critiqued issue of ‘absent black fathers’, illustrating through the characters how emotionally tumultuous it can be to grow up without male role models. This turmoil is made most evident towards the end of the play through a powerful and climactic monologue by an older, drunken Simphiwe of South Africa, played by Patrice Naiamba. His expression of the pain of growing without his father is one of the standout moments and performances of the play. In exploring this sensitive topic, what Ellams manages to do, however is historicise and complicate it. It is not simply that black men are somehow naturally predisposed to abandon their families; instead, consideration ought to be given to societal structures and circumstance. Although some of “our fathers failed us somehow”, one character ponders, “perhaps the system was designed for us to fail” he recognises.
Commendations are due for how unapologetic the play is in its approach; it makes no concessions. The relentless use of the pidgin dialect forces untrained ears in the audience to pay close attention to avoid being lost, and the humour often relies on insider cultural knowledge. For instance, the jest of the tangible reluctance and anxiety perceivable in one of the characters when he is invited to have his hair cut by a different barber in the absence of his usual one can be fully grasped only if one understands how resolutely loyal black men are to their barbers: going to a different barber is tantamount to treason. That the play manages to be at once so jubilant and hysterical while also intense and rich in social commentary is a testament to the genius of Inua Ellams. Structurally, the play is supremely interesting. Each location is connected by a similar joke or a shared theme; the international fascination with the BMW Z4 attests to the globalisation that advertising reflects. The atmosphere and set design is exciting, with songs like Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ playing between scenes; signs from barbershop façades in bright African typography and a motorised clock whose display changes to reflect the various time zones.
What is ultimately returned to throughout the play is the fact that black barbershops are unique locations that form part of the epicentre of communities. When a bald man awaits a haircut, much to the amusement of the audience, the suggestion is that visiting the barbershop is not necessarily as much about the aesthetics of a sharp shape up as it is about company and kinship – or at least the opportunity to charge one’s phone using the shop’s generator when NEPA takes light in Nigeria. This is all epitomised in the character Winston’s intelligent musing that the barbershop is the black man’s pub.