Barber Shop Chronicles @ UWA Octagon Theatre (for Perth Festival)
Friday, February 9, 2018
Amidst our current focus on championing female empowerment and looking at gender parity on our stages around the world, in comes a play to Perth Festival from the UK that’s all about men, performed by men, written by a man. Women are alluded to, but never seen or heard from on stage, and well, it actually isn’t problematic at all. Barber Shop Chronicles may be all about men, but its stories and perspectives are ones that we all can take interest in and benefit from.
Playwright and poet Inua Ellams began writing poems about the conversations he overheard in Jamaican and African barber shops. These poems turned into scenes, which then eventually became this play. He travelled to Africa for research in English-speaking African countries like South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, recording conversations and soaking up the different cultures. He returned to the UK to whittle and workshop the play into form. Much of the dialogue is verbatim.
The show’s prelude begins in an African barber in the UK; it’s absolutely bursting with life, cranked-up music, laughter, and audience members getting ‘haircuts’ (no actual hairs were harmed in the making…). We are immediately welcomed into the positive, communal atmosphere that the barber shop represents to the African community, and we can’t wait to see what stories the players have to tell.
Once the barber shop ‘patrons’ have made it back to their seats, the lights dim, and the cast of twelve begin to weave their magical, theatrical cloth through sad, funny, poignant, angry, mischievous, and proud stories. They talk of fathers and sons, they become fathers and sons (with most of the cast playing multiple, vibrant characters Ellams found in barber shops), they sing and dance together, and they dream, despair and hope together. They discuss politics regularly, with conversations about Mugabe and Mandela; they disagree, and then agree to disagree. They talk about sports, music, culture, love, and language.
We go from the UK to Lagos, to Kampala, to Jo’burg, and then back to the UK, and so forth, skipping continents and countries like stepping stones across a small pond. All the while, we’re on a journey with a central story told in pieces of a short-fused young barber named Samuel (Bayo Gbadamosi) and his father’s former friend and shop owner Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), who constantly butt heads. Ellams keeps us curious about how things got so bad between them, and hopeful that they’ll be able to see eye-to-eye by the end of the play.
The run time is 1 hour 45 minutes without interval, and it does feel like a bit of a marathon. Jumping from country to country makes the story arc feel disjointed at times. Also, for the non-African English speaker, the dialogue may be challenging, but this is all part of the process of trying to see and learn from a perspective other than your own. And there’s nothing difficult at all in interpreting the intent of each and every line – the highly-skilled actors make it all abundantly clear.
The beautiful set designed by Rae Smith does exactly what good design should do: it sets the time, place and atmosphere and embellishes the story without impeding the storytelling. The wire globe hanging from the ceiling tells us to think globally, and the wires strung above the actors heads symbolise the lines that keep Africans connected to their homeland, but they also allude to electrical cords and wires that crisscross shops and streets in developing cities and towns.
Director Bijan Sheibani, the creative and technical team, and the truly outstanding cast have brought the characters in Inua Ellams’s head into full, robust, joyous life. They had me on the edge of my seat throughout, so that I could get closer to these stories and the electric currents coursing within them.
Barber Shop Chronicles runs until February 18 at the Octagon theater at UWA as part of Perth Festival. For tickets and more information, visit the event page here.