Barber Shop Chronicles: A fresh insight at Royal Exchange

★ ★ ★ ★ A very fresh and slick insight with an assortment of reasons why everyone should habitually visit barbershops.

As the gloom of the 2008 recession swept across the world, with unemployment rising and pay rises a distant memory, Barbershops offered hope for everyone. Offering much more than their primary function of slick shape-ups and smoothly-cut fades, they became central locations for many black men.

At the end of that year, Barack Obama defeated the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain to become the first black elected President of the United States. His appointment, like barbershops across the world, signalled a new era geared to rid the black community of their numerous ills.

People maintained their regular visits to the barbershop in the face of austerity. In fact, new barbershops opened up and performed strongly in difficult economic conditions – a testament not only to the talent of the barbers’ ability to produce a string of beautiful intricate cuts but also to the significance of what barbershops offer – a vital and sacred space for the mentoring of black men, open dialogue, growth and therapy.

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester currently has about ‘six’ barbershops in Barber Shop Chronicles until 23 March; each with its distinct dichotomy of mesmeric hard-hitting and light-hearted stories and poignant themes.

Written by Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles is a moving and powerful play set in six cities across the world: Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Accra and London.

Although the concept of barbershops has been previously explored in films such a Barbershop (Ice Cube) and Coming to America (Eddie Murphy), Ellams’ play is a fresh take that places African identity and African masculinity at the centre of the stage whilst avoiding African-American identity and US barbershops altogether.

Taking place over the course of one day, with a thousand stories to tell, the play offers the audience a humorous and contemplative chance to be a fly-on-the-wall in the different African barbershops. Whilst we witness the many conversations that go on when the hair clippers buzz and the scissors snip, topics range from a recurring joke about a dead fly in one’s beer, Nigerian pidgin being used as a form of rebellion, to an ingrown hair, homosexuality, football, the N-word and women. It’s a sacred space because visitors are unapologetically themselves and the dialogue is free from prejudice, thus providing an opportunity for sound understanding between people.

‘Barbers are therapists’

Essentially, the play proves the old adage: ‘Barbers are therapists.’ Black Africans don’t have pubs; they have barbershops.

Directed by Bijan Sheibani, the play has an all-black male cast, taking the nod from The Royal Exchange’s previous staging of Guys and Dolls. Scene changes are fluid, aided by melodic close-knit African harmonies, different accents and a revolving globe above the stage, symbolising the transition to a new location and barbershop.

Music director Michael Henry works on the human voice without instruments, looping one scene to the next with rhythmical chanting and interweaving notes that create powerful counterpoints – hair-raising and effective, to say the least. Music in African society is at the heart struggle and triumph; so vital to political struggle and societal pain. Henry utilises this aspect creatively, as done in other stage and film depictions like Sarafina (Whoopi Goldberg), to enhance the narrative as he both entertains and soothes the black community.

The costume design by Lydia Crimp is fitting to the modern African setting whilst the dialogue is colloquial. Barbershops move with the times; their purpose is enduring and thus the barbers and customers’ dialogue is abreast of the current thinking and social developments; parallel to this, the dynamics between barber and customer remain the same, irrespective of cultural setting.

With characters taking up more than one role in different settings, the costume changes symbolise not only the interconnectedness of the identity of barbershops around the world but society as a whole. Crimp subtly achieves this.

Never falling into momentary lulls, the acting is consistently engaging with a balance of up-beat dancing, relaxed and reflective conversations, before all crescendos into an intense soliloquy about what it means to be a strong black man and fatherhood. The answers, of course, lie in the barbershop.

TNT Arts & Culture

Photo Credit: The Royal Exchange Theatre

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