Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles is fairly self-explanatory: it chronicles the lives of barber shop clients, whose lives vary greatly but intersect in quietly revelatory ways. What gives these stories their momentum is the central, enriching discussion about the dynamics of black masculinity within and outside of barber shops.
In the opening scene, a young man relentlessly pounds a chair on the stage to mimic a rattling locked door. It is 6am, way outside normal working hours. But after a few rounds of desperate knocking, the barber shuffles off his mattress and concedes, letting the man step inside for a pre-job interview haircut. This attention-grabbing opening scene affirms the rarely expressed need for men, of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds, to find a space where they can talk to strangers about their demons, and shed tears over things that clearly stay secret in all other settings.
Were this play a one-night-only venture, the cast could have afforded to trim actual locks of hair with electric razors but, as it is, the audience’s imagination has to put in some work. The razors hover over characters’ heads without making any visible change. Far from creating a hole in the play’s suspension of disbelief, it’s a fitting metaphor for the ever-evolving undercurrent of anxiety and relief that moves between members of the nation-hopping ensemble.
So it is in Ellams’s interweaving narratives: whether at 6am or at closing time, whether planned or on a whim, the need to sit down and entrust one’s head to a stranger knows no opening hours. From his extensive travels and hands-on research, Ellams found that in African and Caribbean communities, barbers “tend to be filters of truth, holders of all versions of the truth, they are focal points, they are confidants, they are uncles – and I mean that in the African sense of the word, a respected elder; or any older member of anyone’s family”. There are distinct moments throughout Barber Shop Chronicles where “counsellor” can be added to the list. At one point it transpires that Simon Manyonda’s Peckham-based character has spent three silent hours waiting in vain for Winston, his usual barber. The prospect of the other barber on the clock, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), cutting his hair instead is as strange a prospect as switching therapists for a week — though he eventually accepts, his insistence that “Winston’s my guy” demonstrates a more lasting bond than the ephemeral scene changes would have us believe.
Although inspired to write the play after hearing about a local collaboration between barbers and counsellors, Ellams has not written Barber Shop Chronicles from a sense of duty to discuss solely current and pressing issues within the black community. Black masculinity and mental health are by no means incidental themes in the play, but they are not the only themes; we are submerged in politics, the evolution of languages, football scores, embezzlement, political correctness, romantic relationships, parental discipline, and a recurring joke about three men in a bar.
In addition, Barber Shop Chronicles plays beautifully with spatial contradictions: the various stories only ever unfold inside the confines of their respective shops (indicated by a different glowing sign on the upper walls), and yet the set is never fixed. Even within a self-contained scene, chairs glide across the floor, and clients and barbers leave no corner of the stage untouched. Reggae, hip-hop, and Afrobeat musical transitions are accompanied by cape dances, as the action swivels between Peckham, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra: “I’m aware of how vast, nuanced, beautiful and delicate barbershops can be. Also, how ridiculously funny, over the top, exaggerated and naturally theatrical those spaces are”.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the relationship between the space of a local barber shop and that of a major Western metropolitan theatre is that the latter has historically been conceived of as a space predominantly for white representation. The former, on the other hand, is one of the few non-domestic spaces in which black men can vent about whiteness, racism, colonialism, micro-aggressions, and disappointment in society at large without fear of reproach or violent retaliation: “Here, men can gather and interact with one another, unburdened by social or generational barriers which define so many other spaces”. By staging Barber Shop Chronicles, Ellams takes an environment in which black male representation is the default expectation and brings it into an environment from which such forms of expression have been historically absent.
As the narratives eventually converge, we reach the thorniest contradiction of all — the simultaneous abundance of places where men can gather to perform their masculinity and externalise the reactions that are expected of them, and the dearth of places where men can gather to exist authentically, without long-imposed and widespread, machismo expectations of what a man should be. A barber shop – and, indeed, a theatre stage – marks an intersection. Whereas in the delightful preamble, the cast openly interacts with the audience: dancing with them, pretending to give them haircuts, and saying hi to friends, the play itself is a retreat into the interior, where we watch and listen without interfering or interrupting. Flamboyancy and banter gives way to the peculiar, tactile intimacy of a barber’s chair, a “place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust”.
This public exploration of mental health in black male communities is a rare, multifaceted gem that contributes to an ongoing but altogether long overdue discussion. Ellams aptly gathers a multitude of identities into one space, a range of ages and nationalities, to show its audience that, contrary to an endlessly homogenising media narrative, there is no single “type” of black man.
“They’re looking for a strong black man,” young actor Ethan (Kwami Odoom) remarks in his chair, disenchanted about an audition. “‘Strong’ – what does that even mean?”
Ellams modeled this brief scene almost verbatim from a conversation during his research, and it speaks volumes about the dual problem of trying to exorcise the stereotype of the “Dangerous Black Male” whilst deciphering the elusive image of the Strong Black Male. How do we cultivate an image of Strong Black Masculinity that incorporates a respect for and affirmation of mental health, especially when registered British healthcare providers are overwhelmingly white? On whom can black men model their masculinity? Does it have to be cultivated so deliberately or, like Odoom’s Ethan, can they opt to reach their own conclusion in a more organic way?
Thankfully, this year we’re witnessing a rise of nuanced male protagonists from productions like the multi Academy award-winning Moonlight and the smash Netflix hit Luke Cage. The former works through a similar scenario to Ethan’s – how to forge a black masculine identity without a father in the picture – while the latter sets a significant portion of its action in a Harlem barber shop.
In a bleak, austerity-ridden artistic landscape, a theatre stage is an oasis. In a global dystopia of “racism, [the stress of] migration, vestiges of the colonial experience, the fragmentation of communities and the processes black men experience in the mental health system”, Barber Shop Chronicles is a celebration of community ties, friendship, resilience, difference, and trust.
Barber Shop Chronicles is on at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until 8 July 2017 (tickets here), and then at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 12 – 29 July 2017 (tickets here). For more information and tickets see here. An accompanying series of events, including “Men and Mental Health” on Tuesday 20th June, can be booked via the National Theatre.
 “List of Registered Medical Practitioners”. General Medical Council 2017. http://www.gmc-uk.org/doctors/register/search_stats.asp (Stats last updated 14th March 2017).