Last summer I had the pleasure of seeing Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse theatre, and again this May as part of the National Theatre’s ‘At Home’ series on YouTube.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a new play by Inua Ellams that creatively depicts the many different roles that the barbershop plays in the Black male community.
The stage set-up accompanied by effective props and music, though minimalistic, so accurately recreated the barbershop atmosphere. Before the play began, members of the audience were invited to join the cast in the ‘barber shop’, sitting in the barber chair and dancing to the music, reminiscent of many Black barber shops across London. This set the tone so well for the rest of the play as the audience were invited to indulge in that familiarity that allows barbershop talk and banter to flow so easily.
The production takes us to six barber shops across the world; London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Kampala, Accra and Harare. The stage was decorated with hand-painted barbershop posters emulating those found in African countries, an immediately identifiable reference for anybody who has seen the real thing. The scene transitions were achieved through the creative chanting of the new city by the cast alongside a change in lighting. It’s an impressive feat to create six locations in one spot, and the convincing accent changes of the cast members further propelled you into the new barber shop.
One of the main themes the production explored were examples of Black manhood and role models, a fitting topic for barbershops filled with Black men of all ages. The characters told stories of how their fathers disciplined them and how this influenced their perspectives of their fathers and how they in turn should parent. The older generation may argue that a father’s role in raising children is that of discipline, but the play realistically portrayed the alienating effects this can have through Kwabena’s torchlight story, resulting in fear and ultimately resentment of his father. One of the South African customers told the story of his drunken absentee father and eventually repeats history with his own son. It made me consider the unmentioned women in those stories, and how they are often burdened with picking up the pieces of these men’s struggle with their masculinity. Other characters while acknowledging the strict nature of their fathers, still placed them on a pedestal, adhering to the cultural adage of respecting your elders.
I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition between this reverence the elder Black men had towards their fathers and Samuel towards his own father against his treatment of Uncle Emmanuel. In Samuel’s eyes, Uncle Emmanuel had emasculated himself in the ‘betrayal’ of his father, who was Samuel’s primary example of manhood. The respect we would expect Samuel to give an older Black man he calls Uncle was lacking to the point of slight discomfort for those observing their interactions. I considered how subjective Samuel’s definition of manhood was, and the criteria required to meet the standards of Black manhood. The mixed-race teenage boy who sits in the barber chair towards the end of the play questions whether he fits society’s definition of Black manhood, which was a great acknowledgement of colourism and how different shades of Black are perceived on men and women.
Another theme the production delved into was the power of language, particularly the etymology and evolution of African languages. It touched upon concepts of pan-Africanism and patriotism, commenting on different African cultures and their preservation. A Nigerian customer in the Lagos barbershop condemns the anglicising of Pidgin, in fear it will kill the language. “Pidgin was banned in schools and became a language of rebellion, 500 languages for Naija, na pidgin unite us.” I liked the use of Pidgin in the opening scene and the refusal to translate it into English, almost foreshadowing later events in the play.
A recurring joke with different cultural variations dependent on the teller and their homeland served as a metaphor and homage to the earlier statement of the Nigerian customer. Across the many countries and barbershops, the same joke united them. A line that stood out for me was, “things we don’t have words for in our language, don’t exist’ as this rings true for every language and reflects the power of knowledge. How many concepts and ideas simply do not exist to us where we are unaware of them? In regards to language, you could interpret this thinking as out of touch, but just as we are reminded by the describing of the Ethiopian thirteen-month calendar in the production; while out of sync with everyone else, they are in sync within themselves.
A final topic I thought to address in this production was the idea of diasporans and the West being one and the same. How well do the diasporans retain their original culture while also assimilating to the ways of the western countries they are living in? A character in the Harare barbershop compared the perceptions of Mugabe from the West to those of Zimbabweans at home, and whose view the Zimbabwean diaspora aligned with. An elder Nigerian customer in the London barbershop reminds the younger Nigerian diasporans that Fela Kuti was regarded as a rebel who did not garner approval from many Nigerians in his time, in contrast to his legacy now revered by countless Africans, both at home and in the diaspora. There is this unique experience of diasporans not quite fitting in at home where they live and neither in their home country of origin. This production highlighted the fact that this is a shared experience among diasporans of all nations, and potentially offers up the diasporan experience as its own separate population with its own blended cultures and influences.
Overall, this production was thoroughly enjoyable, filled with fantastic performers and excellent stories and direction. Honourable mention must be given to stand-out performers Demmy Ladipo and Mohammad Mansaray who balanced the performance with well-timed comic relief and heartfelt portrayals of emotion. A particularly nice touch was Samuel’s dọ̀bálẹ̀ at the end of the performance, a silent gesture of respect which tied the play together nicely and was well received by the audience who understood its significance.