A play rooted deeply in African heritage, writer Inua Ellams brought his massively successful Barber Shop Chronicles play to UCLA for a brief stint in mid October. And upon initial viewing, it becomes apparent that beyond the great performances, thought provoking conversations, and consistent laughs this play provides, Barber Shop Chronicles displays a very vibrant outlook at the many layers of blackness that exist in the world.
Taking place across different barber shops in Africa, and using said barbershops as a medium of storytelling, the play follows a barrage of men while exploring different familial relationships in the process. At the heart of it all however, we are introduced to Winston (portrayed by Solomon Israel), a disgruntled kid who is agitated at the belief that his uncle has deprived his father of his barber shop and garners ambitions to flee the shop overall. However, although this plot is a baseline of what occurs in the play, the presentation is anything but. Conversations of politics between neighboring regions of Ethiopia, as well as the current climate in Nigeria, alongside strongly held beliefs regarding sexuality, football (otherwise known as soccer), and anecdotes about women, unrequited love, and conquests all transpire in these barber shops. What Ellams does particularly well is he depicts the barber shop, and the sacred act of cutting one’s hair, as a search for one’s identity. All types of conversations are held within the barbershops depicted on stage, drawing into the reality that the shop is an open space where people can be transparent amongst one another, and learn from the experiences of others.
Aside from an accurate representation of barber shops all over the world, another aspect that reigns strong in Barber Shop Chronicles is the rich African heritage that lingers over each shop presented. Being someone who was engulfed in African culture my whole life (being raised by two Ethiopian immigrants), I completely empathized and could pinpoint the origin of conversations that occurred on stage. This led to me garnering a great appreciation for what Ellams, director Bijan Sheibani, and the cast had done on the stage. From incorporating traditional African dance, to the extent of political conversation, I appreciated the play for painting a picture of blackness that is seldom times seen. A multifaceted display of culture is presented on stage, courtesy of not just the performers but also designer Rae Smith, music director Michael Henry, and wardrobe supervisor Louise Marchand-Paris. The work that each of these individuals produced, alongside others that were involved in this production certainly did not go unnoticed as it resulted in such a memorable experience.
Overall, Ellams provides a precise look at African culture via the barbershop in his Barber Shop Chronicles. Seeing as the play is making waves throughout the country, I advise that you check it out and immerse yourself within the culture that is being presented on stage. The play not only provides entertainment but it also provides an opportunity to learn about the diversity that exists within blackness, as well as the chance to step outside one’s comfort zone and into the world of the barbershop. And I assure you once you step out the barber shop, you will leave with more than just an appreciation of hair styling but also an appreciation of the world we all reside in.