“A barbershop is a lighthouse. A beacon for the community”. So claims barber Emmanuel in the closing moments of Barber Shop Chronicles. This observation is integral to both the show itself and what it represents on a wider social level. Inspired by a flyer advertising a scheme to teach barbers basic counselling skills, Inua Ellams’ play has transcended its initial concept into something even greater with the aid of Bijan Sheibani’s direction. It is an invigorating celebration of black culture and diversity, as well as a pertinent exploration of identity, mental health and familial relationships within black communities across the world.
From the moment the audience enters the auditorium of the Lyceum, they are overcome by the inescapable energy that emanates from the stage. Cast members dance and joke, inviting the audience on-stage for a ‘haircut’. It’s hard not to be enthralled by what is happening as the joy and positivity infects all in attendance. Deftly, the cast thank their ‘customers’ before joining together in song and dance as the show begins. Continuing with this high energy, the audience are taken on a journey through barber shops in Harare, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, London, and Johannesburg.
Barber Shop Chronicles unfolds over the course of one day, and as it does so it weaves a series of interconnected stories with deeply memorable characters. Some are comedic, such as Wallace’s early morning rush to get a haircut before his job interview in Lagos, while are others are tragic, like Simphiwe’s heartbreaking admission about letting white school children call him slurs in order to feed his family. The balance between the comedy and tragedy never feels jarring, even when tackling complex issues. Such topics include Double Consciousness, LGBT rights in Uganda, as well as debates over pidgin languages and the failings and merits of post-colonial leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.
This is in part thanks to the incredible cast who take on a variety of roles and deliver excellent performances throughout. Much of the play is based upon 60 hours of recordings made by Ellams across Africa, adding a sense of verbatim theatre to the proceedings, which the cast capture perfectly. Even when cast members are not necessarily involved in a scene, they are seated around the stage listening. This adds to the sense of community that is always present throughout the play, be it friendships, familial bonds, or a shared support of Chelsea.
While the dialogues between characters are central to the play, the music and movement provided by Michael Henry and Aline David help to escalate the piece to new levels, adding to the infectious energy that radiates from the stage at all times. Barber Shop Chronicles is a fantastic piece of theatre that is at once witty and powerful, and shines a light on a bastion of safety and comfort for black men around the world. The joy felt by these men upon receiving their haircut is guaranteed to be shared by the audience as they leave.