For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops. Yes, they get haircuts, but the barber shop also serves as a political platform, pulpit and confessional—somewhere to go for unofficial advice, to keep in touch with the world and, of course, argue about soccer.
This special cultural enclave is brought to life in the heart-warming, rollicking and insightful play Barber Shop Chronicles, coming to the Hop January 17-19 after a North American tour and a smash-hit run in the UK. The Hop shows are the only ones on the tour taking place outside of a major metropolitan area. The company’s Hop residency also will include related pre- and post-show events that dive into the show and the issues it raises (the schedule will be shared at hop.dartmouth.edu).
Written by Nigerian-born British playwright Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles takes place over one day in barber shops in six different cities: Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London. Transitioning between the locations with brief, funky interludes of music and dance, the play keeps each shop’s storyline moving like a line of spinning plates, the 12 cast members donning different characters and their distinct regional accents. Based on conversations Ellams overheard in barber shops in London and Africa, the play invites the audience into a uniquely masculine environment where the banter may be sharp, but the truth always telling. The barbers of these tales are sages, role models and father figures, they are the glue that keeps men together.
Critics have praised Barber Shop’s inventive stagecraft, wonderful performances and pitch-perfect storytelling, all of which make give the play universal appeal. “Ellams isn’t just sharing the experiences of people we seldom see on our stages, he does so with a color, force and boundlessness of intellectual inquiry,” write The Telegraph (UK). Wrote The Independent: “Joyous. Brilliantly acted. Life-affirming. Go.” As written by Ellams, who emigrated from Nigeria to London as a teenager, the dialogue has “the sort of giddy verbal jam session one associates with the plays of August Wilson,” wrote The New York TImes.
Wrote the Boston Globe: “The men … banter, bicker, spin yarns, confide in or confront one another… Their conversations cover a wide range and, crucially, the play’s issues seem to emerge organically from the concerns of each character: the treatment of immigrants; the complexities of dating; the challenges of fatherhood (and how much weight to give the examples set by their own fathers); the role of language in sustaining national identity, the political leaders who inspire and the ones whose corruption disgusts; the tensions between generations whose experiences and perspective could not be more different; the toxic legacy of colonialism.”
“There’s always been a need for black men to find spaces where they could commune without fear of a sort of judgmental or voyeuristic gaze,” said Ellams told the Harvard Gazette recently. “Barbershops are that space.” Although the voices vary in the different locations the play takes us to, themes emerge, Ellams said. “There are cross-generational conversations going on; different types of people with different monies in their pockets clashing. There are the same questions about fatherhood, about masculinity, about belonging, about the legacy of colonization coming up.”
Although the play doesn’t include African Americans, American audiences have responded strongly to the play’s themes, Ellams said. “People of various cultures who have digested negative stereotypes of black and African men love the play because it undoes a lot of those stereotypes,” he said. They just see “people on stage being people.” Fundamentally, he said, he wants audiences everywhere “to see that there isn’t a monolith,” he said. “There isn’t an African monolith, there isn’t a black monolith, a human monolith. We are all intensely, intensely different but all intensely, intensely the same, and that mixed bag of humanity is worth celebrating.”
At the Hop, Barber Shop Chronicles connects with themes developed over the entire 2018-19 season. “This dynamic production is the perfect addition to a season that celebrates diverse stories and showcases artists whose lives and work transcend the boundaries nation and culture.” said Hop Director Mary Lou Aleskie. “Barber Shop shows us the joyful humanity and communities we find in each other, even when we are far from home. It is a great honor to have this company and this vital production to Dartmouth.” Other upcoming Hop shows and artists exploring cultural identity include Ana Tijoux, Flor de Toloache, Indigenous Rising and Camille Brown.
Barber Shop Chronicles was co-commissioned by Fuel and the National Theatre. Development funded by Arts Council England with the support of Fuel, National Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Binks Trust, British Council ZA, Òran Mór and A Play, a Pie and a Pint. This event was made possible by support from the British Council. The Hop performances are funded in part by the Wetzel Family Fund for the Arts.