A play looks at black masculinity through the prism of barbershops
A young actor settles into a chair and tells the barber he is nervous: he has an audition for the part of “a strong, black man”. The barber laughs and tells him he is overqualified, but the actor is convinced that he won’t fit their notion of masculinity: he doesn’t know what the description entails. The barber asks what his father thinks. “Never really knew him” comes the reply; there were no uncles or other male role models, only his mother. “Jesus” mutters the barber. “No, not him either.”
This is a snapshot of the humour with which “The Barbershop Chronicles” tackles hefty subjects. Written by Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-born British poet, it is a piercing examination of black masculinity as seen through a prism of barbershops in Accra, Harare, Lagos, Kampala, Johannesburg and London. Mr Ellams once described himself as a “Muslim-Christian, Libra-Scorpio, Irish-English-Nigerian skinny, black immigrant” and so his play—perhaps unsurprisingly—is very much concerned with identity and self-expression.
The action bounces energetically from city to city, and each scene reveals a unique set of social and political concerns. In Accra, Abram the barber calms the nerves of Fiifi as he prepares for fatherhood. In Kampala, Simon tries to change Brian’s attitude towards gay men. In Johannesburg, Simphiwe has become a drunk, unable to overcome the torment of his country’s past. In London, Samuel is blinded by his loyalty to his father while the men around him talk of one-night stands, religion, respect towards elders and the disciplining of children by a generation of men who spoke with their hands.
It is not the first time the barbershop has been held up as a focal point for the black community. There are documentaries (“Barber Shop City”) and anthropological studies (“Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops”) as well as a trio of American films. In “Barbershop” (2002), directed by Tim Story, the film’s protagonist is told that it is “the place where a black man means something…our own country club”. In the play, it is likened to an Englishman’s pub. Mr Ellams has explained how the vulnerability of a man having a shave, with a razor to his neck, creates “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust”.
Mr Ellams first considered the topic a few years ago when a friend told him about an idea for a project to teach barbers the basics of counselling so that they were prepared should a customer want to discuss mental health issues. It felt necessary to strengthen this outlet as so many men, especially those in the black community, associate poor mental health with “weakness” and suffer in silence. Keith Dube, a radio presenter, has argued that there is a “mental health crisis ongoing in black, British communities” (it formed the subject of his documentary “Being Black, Going Crazy?”). Mr Dube struggled with depression but found it difficult to talk about because “black people don’t really do mental illness”. When he started looking into it he found that black men were 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with a serious mental health issue and that young black men were six times more likely to be sectioned. A distrust of the authorities, as well as a fear of the reaction of peers and parents, leads many to the barbershop chair as the safest space to talk.
As well as his interest in London’s African and Caribbean diaspora, Mr Ellams wanted to see whether the barber’s chair held the same power across Africa. He travelled to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana to be a fly on the barbershop wall. The characters in the play are based on his real encounters, from a man in Uganda who believed romantic love could not be trusted to the young actor in London who questioned the meaning of black masculinity. And because the views expressed are real, they can make for uncomfortable viewing. Simphiwe gives a particularly pained account of South Africa and his complete disillusionment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to heal the wounds of apartheid. Western viewers may think there’s been progress in South Africa. Not for Simphiwe: he believes “Mandela failed”.
Mr Ellams juggles plenty of weighty topics but he brings a lightness of touch, peppering the play with humour, music and dance. Each transporting scene is interlinked by an afrobeat song, choreographed dance or football commentary under the lighting of a different barbershop sign. There is a life-affirming joy about the play that has made it a hit with critics; after its sell-out run at the National Theatre in London ends on July 8th, it will get a second run in November. In the “Barbershop” film a character says that “a haircut can change how a man feels on the inside”. In “The Barbershop Chronicles”, watching a man have a haircut achieves the same thing.
Originally posted at THE ECONOMIST