It’s the end of the decade and we’re all tired. So much discourse, so much heavy-handed politics. It’s high time for a feel-good production that’s been making its rounds around the world to drop into Brooklyn, open its arms, and invite us to sit and enjoy the rhythms and flows of warm, friendly conversation – and maybe a haircut. It’s been two long years since Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles premiered at London’s National Theatre, and every second it has been touring through the United Kingdom, Canada, and our very own United States has been a second lost for the New York theater scene.
When I first saw Barber Shop Chronicles at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater last year, I couldn’t believe the world hadn’t come to a theatrical standstill. Though the Fuel/National Theatre/Leeds Playhouse production has remained the same, it stays as fresh as the fades buzzed into the characters’ impeccable hair thanks to its lively, energetic ensemble. Directed by Bijan Sheibani, this play globe-trots through Lagos, Accra, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg and London, casting casual barber shop banter as a source of joy, discussion and community across the African diaspora.
Structured as a series of loose vignettes, the play trusts the deceptively mundane dialogue between barber and client, loiterer and businessman, black man and black man to do the heavy lifting without feeling slight, or worse, overly Important. There’s not much overarching plot outside of a minor drama at the London-set Three Kings shop, where one of the owners finds himself at odds with his nephew over a family dispute. For the most part, the play lets the characters exist as they are, swapping ideas on the politics of modern manhood with a comedic ease that puts most of Twitter to shame.
One man expounds upon the difference between dating White and Black women. One begs for a 6am haircut in order to be “aerodynamic” for a job interview. Another comes under fire for gleefully charging White South Africans to call him racial expletives in grade school. Yet another muses on the differences between culture, race and nationality, and how they don’t always align. They confess some wrongdoings and boast of accomplishments. They all argue about generational differences and keep a vigilant eye on the Chelsea/Barcelona match playing on TV.
As one character jokes that Chelsea fans are the biggest tribe in Nigeria, the specter of imperialism is suddenly close. But Ellam doesn’t traffic in pessimism, instead highlighting the connections made across time and space in a world where, as one character puts it, “maybe we’re all orphans.” The locations might be different, but the sense of ex-pat community is impossible to dilute.
In 2019, you’d be forgiven to think a play about proud men in exclusively male spaces would go either the reactionary or overly-corrective route, but there’s no finger-wagging or moralizing here, even as the idea of masculinity itself is challenged. The last vignette sees a young, rather scrawny actor questioning what a casting call for a “strong black man” should look like, only to be reassured by a quickly-paternal new acquaintance. With a cast this uniformly strong, it’s not a question of the individual, but of the healing powers a positive community can create.
It’s tough to underplay the blast of adrenaline Aline David’s choreography and Gareth Fry’s sound design (think Skepta, Dr. Dre and Beenie Man) give the production, with the ensemble dancing and hyping each other up as they shift the shops around. In Rae Smith’s bustling set, which seats a few audience members amid the barber chairs, generators and backroom mattresses, the tight communities onstage extend far beyond the proscenium.