by Liv Barnett

Barbershop Chronicles is a ride which buzzes with energy from the first shaves to the final fades. It is written by Inua Ellams, UK-based poet, playwright and performer, and is an exhilarating play that identifies various aspects of black men’s experience through snippets of stories and interactions in barbershops that Ellams overheard as he travelled throughout Africa. Like hairdressers or taxi rides, barbershops can be intimate spaces for banter, storytelling and confession. With generosity and patience, this play does a good job of allowing audience members to step momentarily into the world of men’s chats. We become part of the warmth and banter between sensitive characters and appreciate the feelings and analyses that come with post-colonial politics, experiences of cultural change, complex family dynamics and making a living amongst love and friendship.

For those from or connected to African communities, this play carries the spirit of the jovial and sarcastic humor of men of various generations from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and London as they banter across the barber shop floor, catching each other’s eyes in the mirrors. There is a slick mix of Hiphop, RnB and Fela references bringing together music and politics throughout. The barbers and their clients debate whether Mandela was that revolutionary, whether ‘the West’ means the same as whiteness, who gets to say what counts as black excellence, the nuances of confusing race and culture, and racist comments of post-coital white women! All of these issues are handled with wit, sophistication and subtlety. To be honest, the play feels like a series of in-jokes that manage to engage everyone in the room, regardless of background or understanding. In a generous way, and through fantastic direction from Bijan Sheibani and witty writing from Ellams, Barbershop Chronicles invites the audience to think and feel through complex histories of colonialism and the contemporary tribulations of African men from across the continent and the UK.
For other diaspora viewers there are plenty of insights that we can relate to – for example, shifting views on the morality of physically disciplining your child and how this changes across contexts. The first scene sees characters discussing spoilt children, and a character’s experience of his father’s rage. The play is constantly toeing a delicate line between lightness and weight, heart ache and joy; synchronised flash dances with barber cloaks whipped in the air to an afrobeat bassline follow an emotional confession about disconnection from a long-lost son. Never jarring, the high and low emotions roll from one to another seamlessly. The acapella moments of African song offer important punctuation, ensuring audience members cannot dwell for too long but poignant moments linger thanks to the skilled and perfectly executed performances. This is a unique and special play not to be missed, touring throughout the UK (although not including Norwich) and ending at the Roundhouse, London in June 2019.

photo credit: Inua Ellams by Scott Matthewman

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