Writer: Inua Ellams
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Music Director: Michael Henry
Image: Marc Brenner
A National Theatre and Fuel co-production, Barber Shop Chronicles by Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams is partly inspired by a Leeds barber and follows the comings and goings at barber shops in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and London. The play is largely made up of a series of short sketches revolving around a different actor in turn.
The production is staged in the round, and there is the real sense that the audience is looking in on an actual barber shop; the stage set with barber’s chairs and hair products organised into trays. However, all pretence of a fourth wall is broken as the cast mingle with the audience, inviting them to visit the chair before the show. From the outset, the production succeeds in creating the relaxed friendly atmosphere of a barber shop with casual banter, a place preferred by African men over the pub. It is a safe place for black men to come together, enjoy the company, receive council and engage in conversation; getting a haircut almost secondary to the social aspects of the visit. Comedy and even components of stand-up are present throughout this funny, yet poignant production, and, like old friends catching up, conversations turn to matters of politics, family life, heritage and careers. Use of the n-word is explained and there is a lively, humorous discussion on whether you should choose a black or white partner.
The script is original, exciting and completely absorbing. There are some powerful moments, and addresses issues surrounding the masculine identity as a ‘Strong Black Male’.
Women don’t wear down, they toughen up.
The dialogue is clear, which can sometimes be an issue when productions are staged in the round; while rhythmic a capella song (with occasional thumb piano) is woven throughout. Elements of physical theatre and dance complement the high energy of the production, but it is the ever-present feeling of community that is so heart-warming. Strangers open up to strangers, friends enjoy a televised football match, advice is given and the world is set to rights – all from the comfort of the barber’s chair.
Congratulations to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, for once again staging a bold, innovative and thoroughly exciting piece of writing.
Runs until 29 July 2017 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds