Laurence Green reviews Inua Ellams’s rich and insightful production, Barber Shop Chronicles.
Newsroom political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world.
They now provide the settings for Inua Ellams’s exuberant, anecdotal new play, Barber Shop Chronicles (Dorfman Theatre at the National), a co-production with Fuel and West Yorkshire Playhouse, directed by Bijan Sheibani. Basically, a series of mini-dramas, the piece leaps from a barber shop in London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, places where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always telling.
The action switches between these locations on the day in April 2012 when Chelsea beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. The main focus, however, is on a barber’s in Peckham, where a family drama is played out, as young Samuel harbours a seething resentment against his father’s friend Emmanuel who has taken over the shop which used to be owned by Samuel’s father. Past misunderstandings come to the surface as Samuel discovers the truth about his father’s imprisonment. In Johannesburg, Simphiwe drinks away his rage against the still-festering inequalities of apartheid and his estranged father. In Kampala the talk is about the way discrimination about gay people is affecting Ugandan exports and in Harare, we see a generation clash over popular music.
Ellams finds common threads in the geographical diversity; not only soccer but the theme of absent fathers which underpins the complicated relationships between many of these men and their homelands. If errant fathers have let their sons down, the playwright suggests, then, from Mugabe to Mandela, so have their leaders. Other subjects which come into focus are masculinity and migration, identity and community, the propriety of using the N-word, the subversive power of Pidgin English, and the supposed differences between black and white women.
The story itself lacks clarity at times – it is difficult to distinguish between the different locations which aren’t always clearly delineated and the dialogue, whilst naturalistic, is occasionally chunky and over-explicit. Scene changes are semi-chaotic, with the actors wheeling chairs around the stage and breaking into choreographed dance and singing in harmony. Indeed Sheibani skillfully uses music and dance to link the episodes together and the relationships between the men are tellingly drawn and vividly conveyed. In other productions, these characters might be marginalised at best and parodied at worst.
The play, which manages to be both funny and dramatic in turn, and where the atmospheres can vary between rumbustious and contemplative, builds up a strong emotional charge in the second half and goes out of its way to be inclusive and involving.
Sheibani extracts excellent performance from his 12-strong cast, with particularly fine work from Cyril Nri as patriarchal London Nigerian, Emmanuel, Patrice Naiambana as angry Johannesburg Simphiwe, Hammed Animashaun as a randy youngster who never lets politics impede his sex life, and, of course, Fisayo Akinade as the rebellious Samuel.
This then, is an insightful look at the black experience. Go immerse yourself in this rich, vibrant world!
Barber Shop Chronicles
Running repertory until 8 July 2017 before moving to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from 12-29 July 2017.