Paean to an African hairdo



DID I tell you the xenophobic joke about the fly? Abram (David Webber) is a customer; Samuel (Mohammad Mansaray) fixes his coiff. Photograph courtesy New York Times.

WHERE IS IT that African men get to kick back, let their hair down and loosen their tongues? The communal urinal? The local bar? Under the pen of Inua Ellams, it’s the barbershop; South African writers of the ilk of Tony Miyambo, Sue Pam Grant and Phyllis Klotz  won’t disagree. The immaculately made Barber Shop Chronicles, staged at the Leeds Playhouse in 2018, is this week’s National Theatre Live at Home play which you can watch for free on the National Theatre’s youtube channel; it brilliantly touches all the complicated nerves of clowning while painting a rich and diverse image of Africa and its diaspora which segues music with pidgin language, football with family values.

Clowning is an odd skill: to the layman’s eye it represents a laissez-faire kind of sloppiness which gets the laughs. To the clown behind the training, however, there is a tight whorl of theatrical muscularity and know-how, underpinning all of these values. And this is the kind of effect you get in these hairdressing stories, all concatenated together, as they are.

Centred in six areas – from the south of London’s Peckham district to Kampala in Uganda, Accra in Ghana, Nigeria’s Lagos, Zimbabwe’s Harare and Johannesburg in South Africa – the work is a complicated meshing of African values and men’s opinions, with an underlying narrative that lends continuity to the pieces as it confronts the difficult mess that fatherhood can be.

In several colourful vignettes, everything from political shenanigans of various dodgy leaders to the description of abuse, racism and xenophobia, to behaviour with women comes under the loupe, and the beautiful diversity of African accents offer a tapestry of contradiction, feeding into what Africa means that is music to the ear – but there’s more: speaking of music, in the interregna between scenes, the in-the-round set comprising skanky barber chairs on wheels, an assortment of coiffure tools and the like, becomes rich with a cappella rap and riffs specific to regions yet comfortable anywhere, coloured with choreography that in itself holds the work together.

Like Retief Scholtz’s extraordinary work, Dop, however, there is a beautiful hairpin bend in the tale which is penned with an extremely skilled hand, but never forced in the narrative. Indeed, the work’s denouement is one that will leave you sobbing with realisation, bringing the undercurrent of the tale to a meaningful closure that leaves you in the thrall of a complete and perfect masterpiece. If you see one National Theatre at Home work this lockdown, choose this one!

  • The Barbershop Chronicles is written by Inua Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani for the Leeds Playhouse in 2018. It is performed by Micah Balfour, Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Ade Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodoro, Demmy Lapido, Mohammad Mansaray, Tom Moutchi, Anthony Ofoegbu, Elmi Rashid Elmi, Eric Shango and David Webber. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live at Home, it features creative input by Rae Smith (set and costumes), Jack Knowles (lighting), Aline David (movement), Kev McCurdy (fight choreography), Gareth Fry (sound), Michael Henry (music direction), Charmian Hoare (voice coach) and Hazel Holder (dialect coach). It broadcasts for free until May 21 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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