Barber Shop Chronicles: The new play that invites the viewer deep into the heart of the barber shop
“From writing the play, I’m aware of how vast, nuanced, beautiful and delicate barbershops can be. Also, how ridiculously funny, over the top, exaggerated and naturally theatrical those spaces are.” – Inua Ellams
Barber Shop Chronicles is a new playexploring the role of the barber shop, and the multitude of functions this space can offer, beyond the act of getting one’s hair trimmed. Written by Nigerian-born, London-based poet and playwright Inua Ellams, he was inspired to explore this subject when he learnt of a project that taught barbers the basics of counselling. “I had forgotten that conversations could be so intimate and so delicate in places where men would gather and I wanted to witness that interaction”, he explains.
Set in six different barber shops – one in London, five located in cities across Africa – over the course of one day, the viewer is invited into an environment which functions as “newsroom, political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium”. Put simply, Ellams explains, “Barber shops are places where we can be ourselves”. There is a universality to this space – after all, everybody has to cut their hair. Here, men can gather and interact with one another, unburdened by social or generational barriers which define so many other spaces. Ellams visited each of the five African cities (Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra) while developing the project, basing much of the dialogue and characterization on the men he met.
We spoke to him about the barber shop as a sanctuary and tackling perceptions of black masculinity.
“Many of the portrayals seen of black African men tend to be stereotypical, lack nuance and are more often than not negative representations.”
You visited barber shops in London and Africa when developing this project. What are some of the main themes of conversation that you overheard? Lots of men talked in various ways about masculinity, their relationships with their loved ones, their places within society and about how political changes affected their place within their families. They ranged from the political to the personal and they spoke a lot about football.
What role do you think barbershops and barbers themselves play within communities? I think roles are specific to the types of communities. In African and Caribbean communities, barbers tend to be like councillors. They act as news reporters who filter through the overwhelming amount of information that is passed across by television and radio stations. They tend to be filters of truth, holders of all versions of the truth, they are focal points, they are confidants, they are uncles – and I mean that in the African sense of the word, a respected elder; or any older member of anyone’s family.
Barber shops themselves are, and have been, safe spaces within African and Caribbean communities where men of colour can gather to share or show strong emotions or perform aspects of their culture without a critical or an outsider’s eye watching. It reminds me of quantum physics, where changes to the movement of molecules or the ways molecules navigate a space changes if they are watched. When we are aware that we are being watched we act in a different way. Barber shops are places where we can be ourselves.
Two key themes within your play are black masculinity and men’s mental health. Do you think it is important to address these themes through creative work? I don’t think it’s important to address these issues through creative work, it’s just that I work in the creative industry therefore it’s my way of addressing them. There is a freedom that working creatively affords those who engage with this theme, in that we can do whatever the hell we want. We can drill into things, we can write freely and we can follow our imaginations in a way that mental health professionals or academics can’t.
Has your understanding of barber shops and the relationships between barber and client changed since writing your play? When I began writing the play I didn’t know how deep the rabbit hole went, I just knew it existed and that I wanted to enter. From writing the play, I’m aware of how vast, nuanced, beautiful and delicate barbershops can be. Also, how ridiculously funny, over the top, exaggerated and naturally theatrical those spaces are.
If there is one thing you hope the viewer will take away from viewing Barber Shop Chronicles, what is it? I hope that they will take away from the play the various types of black men that exist in the UK. Many of the portrayals seen of black African men tend to be stereotypical, lack nuance and are more often than not negative representations. Barber Shop Chronicles shows the men as they are, the men I actually met. It tries to hint at the plethora of voices and the thousands and thousands of types of men that are not presented on television, radio or stage.
Barber Shop Chronicles opens 30 May – 8 July 2017 at the National Theatre, London / 12 – 29 July at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Find out more here