On the heels of two sold-out runs at the National Theatre in London, Inua Ellam’s ethnographically-tinged play “Barber Shop Chronicles” makes its Brooklyn debut this week as one of the final entries in BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Focused on the intimate, unguarded conversations Black men have at community barbershops, the play features a cast of 12 and is inspired by 60-hours worth of recordings Ellams made at different shops across London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. The Nigerian-born, London-based playwright then whittled down the stories to just under two hours, resulting in a fictionalized retelling that shuffles audiences between six different cities and spans conversations about fatherhood, stereotypes, prejudice and more.
“The idea of barbershops as a place where men come not just for a trim, but also to talk about things that matter to them struck me straight away as an idea which could open up stories we don’t hear every day,” said Fuel Theatre director Kate McGrath, who first started working with Ellams on the project nine years ago. “… Everyone needs a community — people they can come together with and share their experiences, their hopes and their fears. It’s kinship — as important as family.”
Actor Maynard Eziashi, who originated several roles in the production, was first attracted to the play because it strayed from stereotypical depictions of Black men. The barbershop conversations afforded actors the opportunity to be vulnerable, open and hopeful, he said.
“This, to me, was important because [barber shops] are spaces where men are free to be themselves, especially Black men, who often have to self-censor,” Eziashi said. “We learn not to laugh too loud, how to remove the bass from our voice, not to be too expressive, because these actions are often misinterpreted as aggressive, threatening or showboating. It’s essential to see what Black men are really like when they no longer have to maintain a guarded front.”
Eziashi said his experiences on the show have deepened the reverence he feels for barbershops, a love that first developed when he was growing up in the U.K.
“They are a hub, a community where problems and joys are aired and shared,” he said. “They are a point of contact, a way to enter and join the community. We are taught, often by observing and listening, what it means to be a Black man and the intricacies and contradictions that entails.”
Although he doesn’t yet know what’s in store for the run at BAM, he said he hopes the audience feels represented and appreciated.
“It’s seeing young Black people come out after the show surrounded by an aura of happiness from seeing their life represented on stage,” he said. “That the theater they walked into was their space, their music, their history and, for some, their future.”
“Barber Shop Chronicles” runs through Dec. 8 as part of BAM Next Wave. Check here for more information.