INTERVIEW: Playwright Inua Ellams – Barber Shop Chronicles

The Playhouse’s first co-production with the National Theatre, Barber Shop Chronicles is the dynamic new play inspired by a Chapeltown barber, written by rising literary star Inua Ellams (Black T-Shirt Collection, the National Theatre, The 14th Tale, Fringe First winner).

Playwright Inua Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles

Inua Ellams

Vibrant and joyous, Barber Shop Chronicles spans continents following African men from London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, contemplating the role the barber shop plays in their lives.

Directed by Bijan Sheibani (A Taste of Honey, National Theatre, War Horse, US tour 2012-2014), Barber Shop Chronicles is a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse, the National Theatre and Fuel, running in Leeds from 12 – 29 July and returning to the National Theatre on the 29 November 2017. Read our review of Barber Shop Chronicles.

Where did your inspiration first come from when writing Barber Shop Chronicles?

A friend told me about a charity wanting to pioneer a programme training barbers in the basics of counselling – I was startled that conversations in barber shops were so intimate that they’d seen a need for counsellors. Initially I wanted to be a poet attached to that project, writing poems and creating graphic art to be installed in barber shops based on the barbers I met and the conversations that I overheard. This idea stayed with me, and the more time I spent in the barber shops listening to intimate conversations, the more the voices grew louder, haunting me until they became freestyling characters conversing in my head. I wanted to pin them down and spend more time discovering them.

The play is set across multiple countries and continents exploring the role of the barber shop. Can you give an insight into your journey and processes?

I really wanted to present a plethora of characters that showed the nuances of African masculinity. I travelled to Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, and spent time in barber shops in Leeds and London, with the stories and the characters in the play coming from the conversations I had with men I met. These men allowed me to transcribe our conversations, which gave me an opportunity to invent and merge characters. It means the play as a whole feels to me much more like a collaborative project.

What personal significance do barber shops have to you and what do you hope to achieve by shining a light on an exploration of masculinity amongst black, African or Caribbean men?

I was born in Nigeria and left there as a kid. I suddenly lost contact with those welcoming barber shop spaces when I moved to the UK. My father and I began cutting each other’s hair. It was only as an adult when I had enough money to be able to go to barber shops, that I rediscovered these bastions of masculinity, these safe spaces.

I realised there was an intimacy of conversation that took place between black, Caribbean or African men in barber shops that wasn’t found in many other spaces. They were spaces where it was safe to be ourselves. There was a nuance to our character, to our personhood, which was lacking in many depictions of African, Caribbean or black men, and in writing this play I wanted to spotlight that.

When I was a kid in Nigeria I lived another way of being. I wanted to bring this sense of openness within black, Caribbean and African communities to the stage. I wanted to say: this is who we are, these conversations are valid and important, and we need to share them with other members of our community. I wanted to show we are likeminded, we are questioning, and we are present.

The Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre

The cast of The Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre

What do you thinks audiences will take from the production, and how do you think a Leeds audiences will repsond?

The play is about friendship, fatherhood, the things we take for granted and joy. It also addresses migration, which I’ve overall approached with humour. I’m a jovial person and I wanted to write that aspect of it. The issue of migration doesn’t automatically equate to a sadness, desolation or desperation in any of the play’s characters. I spent 14 years looking for a place to belong to before finally settling and living in the UK, or rather getting the right to do so. Those 14 years of my life were incredible, there were as joyous as they were heart-breaking.

On my journey of development writing this play I visited a barber shop in Chapeltown called Stylistics. There I met an amazing young guy who told me his story, and allowed me to transcribe it. He actually became the inspiration for one of the characters in the play.

I want all people who come to watch the play to experience a sense of discovery. The play negotiates joy, happiness and sharing, which I think all audiences will be able to relate to and really appreciate.



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