Director: Bijan Sheibani
Writer: Inua Ellams
As part of his research, playwright Inua Ellams spent a week in each of the six cities his Barber Shop Chronicles transports us to, listening to and recording the stories of men who passed through the doors of various barbershops. It definitely shows.
This dense and vivid script brings to life the stories of real people from Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg, Harare and London, sometimes even using their words verbatim, as they whirlwind in and out of barbershops for a chat, a laugh, a drink, a therapy session or a haircut. There’s not a single weak member among the twelve-strong cast, skilfully switching roles to portray 30 distinct, well-rounded characters.
On video, some of the most magnificent elements of Rae Smith’s set are partially hidden from view, like the light-up storefront signs or the spinning neon globe suspended above the stage, indicating the location of each scene. Nevertheless, the actors’ strong performances, combined with the worn chairs and tables wheeled in and out and the atmospheric city soundtrack of beeping car horns and shouts, make it incredibly easy to lose yourself and believe you’re in a barber’s shop somewhere halfway across the world.
Initially it might seem that each scene is a separate vignette, that the whole play only functions as a series of unrelated monologues full to the brim with laugh-out-loud humour, with dance numbers to catchy Hip-hop or haunting traditional music providing joyous transitions. But there are subtle threads that link each scene; anecdotes and jokes carried from country to country, the grunts of approval when shown the results of the haircut in a hand-held mirror, or the TVs and radios all tuned in to the same Chelsea v Barcelona football match.
There is heavy emotion, too: the play jerks from raucous to sombre in seconds. Fisayo Akinade plays a barber furious at his father’s best friend (Cyril Nri) for taking over the business while his father is in prison. With tenderness and power, the performers slowly unravel the series of heartbreaking secrets at the heart of their dysfunctional relationship. A scene in which an elder, drunk, South African man grieves for his estranged son and recalls charging school bullies a dollar to call him a slur so that he could afford to pay for food, is truly heartbreaking. Listening to the play’s solo speeches it grows increasingly obvious that writer Inua Ellams also practices as a poet.
The play is a rollercoaster of emotions, a sea of battling voices. In debates on political leaders, absent fathers, masculinity and Blackness there is a cacophony of conflicting opinions, never reaching agreement but instead reuniting to cheer at the football. Near the end, a wannabe actor enters the barber’s and says he is auditioning for the part of a “strong black man”. There is laughter all round because by this point Ellams has proven that there is no single way to be a black man, in this country or any other.
Runs here until 21 May 2020