Barber Shop Chronicles

Play: Barber Shop Chronicles Playwright: Inua Ellams Director: Bijan Sheibani Theatre: Roundhouse Review by Briana Carter 

Barber Shop Chronicles, originally launched at the National Theatre in 2017, is a brilliant piece of theatre. Playwright Inua Ellams sets the play in six different barbershops in London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala and Harare over the course of one day.

The show starts before the play does as sheepish audience members are pulled from their seats to have a quick (pretend) trim or shape up in a barber’s chair while Afro beats and old skool classics (Cameo, anyone?) bellow from the speakers. The atmosphere is electric and is a perfect start to the production.

Exploding with sharp and humorous insights, Ellams’ writing and Bijan Sheibani’s flamboyant direction weaves a complex narrative which connects the lives of black men across the diaspora.

In each barbershop, there is an unspoken hierarchy. The older men demand respect while the young Turks battle with the dichotomy of wanting to be independent from, but also mentored by these older men. Both groups bear similar scars from fraught experiences as black men. This intergenerational tension helps creates an energetic show full of rambunctious characters spewing bombastic claims at each other. However, regardless of age or country, these men are united in their loyalty and passion to their chosen football club – Chelsea.

The primary focus is on The Three Kings barbershop in Peckham where the quiet but likeable patriarch, Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), the young fiery assistant, Samuel (Mohammad Mansaray) and the lascivious Caribbean Winston (Micah Balfour) navigate tensions surrounding Samuel’s father’s incarceration, which he believes was unjustly caused by Emmanuel. As tempers flare, we discover deeply buried unsavory truths.

At the play’s heart is the question: Who am I as a black man? Explorations of what it means to be a black man in modern society are juxtaposed with archaic notions of blackness, masculinity and sexuality.

The older men express disdain for the “sissy-like” tendencies among the youth of today while tolerating “the gay” for economic gain. Broken definitions of masculinity, held together by decades of internalised oppression, are challenged by the younger men as they struggle to find their place in a new and evolving world while still celebrating and reclaiming their culture and heritage.

One of the more comedic vignettes is from Bad Boy (Demmy Ladipo), a young man in London who flaunts his sexual prowess to the applause and admiration of his fellow comrades. He praises himself for taking home a white woman while also having a black woman on the side. Yet, conversely, there seems an unspoken obligation to his blackness to ultimately choose the black girl.

In the play, contrasting African leaders Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe (whose legacies have been defined by Western society) are critiqued by their fellow countrymen. Mandela, whose legacy is celebrated internationally in the month of July finds himself at the forefront of South African born Simphiwe’s (Emmanuel Ighodaro) mind.

With the stage light directly on him, a beer in hand, he bursts with passion and righteous indignation as he reflects on being black under apartheid. Frustrated with the strategy of truth and reconciliation that seemed to do little for blacks, Simphiwe’s rage has no place to go. His only solace is at the bottom of a beer bottle.

Through the inventive stage direction and choreography Barber Shop Chronicles eloquently interprets masculinity as a joyous expression. Movement director Aline David’s offers a refreshing take on both traditional and new forms of dance. Dazzling like peacocks, the men strut around holding their capes as they flaunt their masculinity.

Rae Smith’s set design captures the essence of a barbershop as a lighthouse, a haven and a beacon in the community where men from all walks of life come to commune with one another. Under a lit gigantic wire globe, the interconnectedness of the men from across the globe is woven into our psyches.

Anthony Ofoegbu’s burdened and empathetic Emmanuel is a riveting performance. His willingness to be open and engage with Samuel and Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi) contrasts with his inauthenticity in a space he cultivated for others to be themselves.

As an American black girl, the play feels like an ode to my uncles and their stories which are often untold. Barber Shop Chronicles is both light-hearted and challenging. Understandably, the intersectionality between being a black man in a white patriarchal society is complicated to understand and navigate in real life.

Often the narrative of being black, being a man, being a first, second or third-generation immigrant in Western society is usually misunderstood. This play accomplishes a hard feat, by making a complex cultural and historical issue accessible for everyone.

A must-see show,  no matter your age, race or gender.

Barber Shop Chronicles, a National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse co-production is at Roundhouse until 24 August 2019

Photo credit: Marc Brenner