Inua Ellams. Portrait by Franklyn Rodgers.
Barber Shop Chronicles is one of the most ingenious plays I have watched in a long time. Finally, the Black man is not the villain, overly sexualized, the slave, or the savior for damaged Black women. He’s just human and is trying to figure this sh*t out like the rest of us! Originating in London and making it’s New York debut at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, this play is a real life look at the interpersonal relationships between men in our diasporic community. The barbershop is historically known to be the only place where our men have received any type of therapy. It’s where they discover who they are and how to treat one another and their community. Playwright/poet, Inua Ellams, and his all-male, 12-person cast do a phenomenal job of expressing true emotion and giving the rest of the world insight into what it’s like to be a melanated man. It plays in the humourous pool of sports, relationships, and race but then deep-dives into identity, fatherhood, generational trauma, and politics.
Taking place in six different barber shops in London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala, and Harare, Barber Shop Chronicles weaves us through the connections and similar experiences of these men despite their location. Each episode is sewn together with cultural music and dance that adds to the personality of the play. Every man is relatable on some level to someone you personally know or have come across. I attended the play with my partner, Will Focus. At the end he was in tears, which is a rare sight, so I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts.
NayMarie (NM): Soooooo, what were your thoughts?
Will Focus (WF): The comedy was spot on. I noticed that they mixed several dialects from all over the diaspora. The fact that they were able to do it so seamlessly and still show that people were able to communicate in their respective dialects was awesome. I love that they drew the importance of speaking in a common tongue and having a dictionary that translates to Twi.
NM: What else?
WF: What I liked, on the political side, is the comparison between Winnie and Nelson [Mandela]. The fact that Winnie was the true hero then Nelson was brought in like how I view the Black pastors in America.
NM: As a pacifist?
WF: Yea, a pacifist. Someone who’s looking to put out that flame because it’s getting a little too hot for the European massives to handle. Or it’s a little too effective. What better way than to use her husband? I also liked the comparison between nigger and kaffir. What better way, specifically for the white audience who may not understand how significant that word is but can feel the weight when paralleled with the word nigger, to compare the use towards Africans. I like how they spoke of reclaiming our land and the one guy noted about how many of the Europeans had to die and it was retorted that African people died too. How they look out for the European but ignore the African lives lost. I love how it was reiterated that we took it BACK. It was ours to begin with and taken from us. I also like that they pointed out that the African slave trade was the biggest massacre, bigger than the Holocaust. I thought those dynamics, from a political perspective, from a social perspective, were excellent.
Tom Moutchi and David Webber. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
NM: And the tears?
WF: As it suits me personally, what brought me to tears was the Father/Son relationship dynamic. How the family is expressed through their lens in London and Africa also happens to Black boys and men in America. It shows that this is a consistent issue among us. It was funny how the drunk/disheveled one who most people would judge, had the most information. Early on, he told of how he allowed European children to call him kaffir for a pound, or twice for two pounds and it upset all of the men in the shop. Later, we discover he did it because he lived with his grandparents, after being abandoned by his father, and they were poor. It’s how he made money to survive. When he was confronted with reconciling with his father, the emotional overflow led to the truth of the situation and that brought me to tears in terms of the reality behind that. Then it was the phrase of “boys growing up to be their fathers” and me having two sons. In one scene, they said, “a child will show you how to raise them.”
NM: Word, that spoke to me.
WF: That hit a chord for me because the difference in the dynamics I have to take with my two sons is VAST, even with my daughter. They have ALL shown me that I have to approach them differently. Then it showed the older generation of men who are kind of detached from emotion with their children and don’t realize the damage they have done.
NM: That beating them is the solution…
WF: And leaving it at that without ever reconciling for the damage that they’ve done. And that’s broad and sweeping.
We chatted for a solid hour, but we want you to see the play for yourself! I would love for it to be made into a film and played on kweliTV to reach a wider audience. In the meantime, follow Inua Ellams and Barber Shop Chronicles to see where they’re playing next. It is worth all of the awards it has already received and then some. You feel it in your soul and are elated to see these conversations given priority.
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