Barber Shop Chronicles
8 June 2017
Within the Afro-Caribbean black community hair is a thing. So, where better to dramatise this than a Barber Shop. The production at The National’s Dorfman studio chronicles interweaving stories and characters going for a trim in London, Lagos and beyond. It’s an examination of black masculinity and what this means in the 21st century. No stone is left unturned; homosexuality, violence, women, child-rearing, business, semantics, slavery, alcoholism, criminality and absent fathers – all get a thorough chewing over and the play successfully provides a comprehensive snapshot into an environment only frequented by a section of society. The Barber Shop Chronicles running at 1 hour 45 minutes with no interval romps along and provides a delightful evening’s theatre. The joy and zest with which the strong cast perform is infectious and Bijan Sheibani’s direction ensures that the text which, at times seems a tad adolescent, always feels punchy and exhilarating.
The pre-set is full of flavour. We sit on the four sides and three tiers of the Dorfman surrounded by deliberately messy cabling and wacky signs for Barber Shops advertising the newest hairstyles and freshest cuts. Suspended above centre stage is a huge luminous wire globe that helps us pinpoint the location of the scenes as we jump about from continent to continent. The actors are already in full swing as the audience enter the auditorium. I was un/fortunate enough be hauled up on to one of the mix-matched barber chairs in the playing space to have a “metaphorical” haircut. The interaction between the audience and players is fun and jovial and to the bouncing soca rhythms the play kicks off with the company roaring at a game of football on a screen-less television.
The scenes revolve around the lead story of Samuel, played movingly by Fisayo Akinade who works in The Three Kings barbers with his Dad’s best friend (Cyril Nri) and bouncy Jamaican ladies’ man (Antony Welsh.) Around them Inua Ellams interlaces a network of barbers in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa all full of men needing a little more than a haircut. Notable performances include Patrice Naiambana as a disaffected alcoholic railing at Mandela and his hollow reconciliations and Simon Manyonda as a hipster who stutteringly discusses the syntactical difference between “nigger” and “nigga” and whether it’s possible to take ownership over the terms all whilst fastidiously quoting Tupac. Hammed Animashaun plays a perfectly observed south-east London Lothario and commands the stage leaving the audience in stitches whilst Sule Rimi’s rant about the decline of Pigeon makes for a thought-provoking moment. His observation that Pigeon is a form of communication that unites all those of African derivation enabling speakers of 500 plus languages to talk and that his child replying to him in RP upsets him is unusually affecting. There is also fantastic musical direction from Michael Henry whose acapella compositions punctuate and lift some of the heavier subject matter.
For anyone brought up in South East London, this play feels pretty overdue. Afro-Caribbean hair shops have been as much a fixture here as The Cat of Catford or The Cutty Sark. It was great to have a window into a culture that is clearly so much more than a hair-cutting service, however I found some of the discussion of black masculinity a bit backward- thinking. It was great to hear how Mandela, Martin, Malcolm, Mugabe, Fela, Tupac and other monoliths had shaped the representation of the black male in broader culture but I was waiting for a reference to Obama and how he has exploded those achetypes for black males growing up now the 21st century. As Cyril Nri’s character affirms in the final scene, the most important question is “How do we move forward, what do we do next?” Thus, leaving the evening on a most positive and hopeful note.