Upon entering the casually constructed set of the Barber Shop Chronicles, sharply designed by Rae Smith to be inclusively global yet endearingly personal, you’ll find that the cast consisting entirely of black males, do not simply perform. Some nonchalantly amble around the peripheries of the stage chatting to the audience, others dance in time to the grime music vibrating through the room, taking spectators-cum-friends with them, and one barber offers free haircuts to a special few forthcoming members of the audience. There is no dramatic rise of the curtain, rather the opening minutes establish a mood of inclusivity and comfort in the barbershop. This mood characterises the play, in an environment where political and domestic anxieties fester, allowing the barbers to characterise a much needed therapeutic refuge.
A thread of connectivity runs through the Barber Shop Chronicles, which transcends borders, generations and divergence in political opinion. Through its argumentative confrontation and anecdotal remedies, it seeks to define the identity of black masculinity within the socio-political black African tradition. The father figure dominates this tradition, both in terms of the domestic and the political: the vestiges of an ever-present colonial past haunts any attempt to create a national identity, which subtly and abstractly works alongside paternal absence and the resultant complexities- an absence strikingly common to many of the characters.
Each transition, from Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare to Kampala, Lagos to Accra, is enacted through the casts’ deep-throated, sometimes soothing, sometimes punchy, A capella singing, often serving to diffuse the tension of the previous scene. Healing also appears in the form of Peter Bankole, whose fast-paced wit ignites a thrice re-told joke in an eye-popping fashion. The surrounding gaggle of men descends into rippling roars of laughter that invade the audience. Laughter is infectious. Laughter is cathartic.
Writer Inua Ellams brilliantly treads the fine line between revelling in the delicious sensation of losing oneself in the moment, and the deeper penetrative therapeutic dialogues that delve into the complex composition of black masculinity, at times sounding like a chunky, captivating history lecture.
Hair is obsessively shaped and reshaped in the barber’s chair, which is a surface level manifestation of underlying questions about masculine strength and origins; this is isolating yet ultimately brings them closer, as the barbershop progressively becomes the family home. Women are markedly and unusually absent from this play, which is worth a mention as it indicates the endurance of hierarchical and patriarchal workings.
The plethora of barbershops gives a platform to both the stereotypically masculine; think football spectatorship where raucous testosterone-induced homogenised men bounce off one another in expressive hugs. This sits alongside more intimate discussions of paternal complexes. The most moving dialogue is the concluding one, when Cyril Nri morphs into a paternal figure to the fatherless Kwami Odoom, stating “maybe we’re all orphans”. As the blade glides and removes layers of dense hair, his layers of identity are peeled back to reveal vulnerability and fear.
It topically references the army coup and forced resignation of the globally maligned Mugabe in Zimbabwe that happened earlier this month; in an interesting twist, Patrice Naiambana’s loud and proud yellow Mugabe t-shirt evidences local admiration. Barber Shop Chronicles is less a fixed narrative and more of an expressive dialogue ready to adapt to the constantly evolving identity of black African males.
Barber Shop Chronicles is playing at the National Theatre until January 9 2018.
Photo: Marc Brenner