Set in half a dozen barber shops across two continents, Inua Ellam’s energetic, funny, banter-driven play seeks to join the dots between the experiences and opinions of black men in geographically disparate locations. And there are are plenty of dots to join in a play that ricochets between barber’s chairs as far apart as Johannesburg and Lagos, Accra and London.
In the latter city, the plot focuses on an embittered teenager who resents his imprisoned father’s business partner for taking over the shop in which he works. When the action switches to another town, the topics of conversation switch in tandem. The hairdresser’s is quickly established as a sacred community space, part hangout, part therapist office, and part forum to debate subjects as far-ranging as the n-word, unresolved apartheid tensions, homosexuality, absent fathers, money and the unique pressure on young black men to adhere to strong, masculine stereotypes.
At one hour and 45 minutes the play doesn’t so much run the gamut of black experience as sprint through it. But despite the demanding pace, it never loses its breath. This is helped by a tendency towards self-reflection: the young clash with the old over music and language, the traditional clash with the progressive over religion and race. In Uganda they argue that sanctions over gay rights abuses are harming the local economy. In London they joke about the differences between white girls and black girls. As hair is cut, thoughts and feelings on both sides of the clippers are tested with rigour.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a lively celebration of a set of shared and contrasting experiences. While these spaces are most clearly linked by the live football game that plays out on the radios and televisions, the connection between the shops is most felt when a link is drawn between the various men who visit them.