Barber Shop Chronicles
Updated: May 22
Written by Inua Ellams, Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Filmed at London Roundhouse in summer 2019
Screened online, May 2020.
This whistle-stop tour of Africa, starting in Peckham, London, takes in Lagos, Kampala, Accra, Johannesburg and Harare, featuring twelve male actors in thirty roles. All of these capitals and characters are brought into our homes via the Roundhouse Theatre, streamed via the National Theatre’s At Home programme, produced in partnership with Fuel Theatre Company and Leeds Playhouse. So, quite a collaboration, and quite a journey. I can’t believe I missed it on stage the first time round.
Now, what did I expect from a play with such a quirky, historic title? A stage version of Desmond’s, perhaps? There are some links, but Inua Ellam’s play develops the theme of life in a black male barber shop so much more expansively than the Channel 4 sitcom from the early 90’s. Barbers Shop Chronicles is personal and local, but it's also pan-African, and there’s a different style of hat. And the humour goes way beyond high street banter. On a weightier note, the play tackles social injustice and historical evils with scathing insight.
A beanie, a fedora, but no pork pie hat to be seen (photo: Marc Brenner)
Ellams has described barber shops as a safe haven for British black men:
“a safe, sacred place where they can go to relax, escape racism and talk freely with no fear of being stopped, questioned or moved on by the police, which is a common experience in the world outside." (Inua Ellams talking to Arifa Akbar).
And yet, as an onlooker (a white man who never goes to the barber's) the atmosphere generated in his staged barber shops frequently feels tense, a mood which alternates with brotherly warmth and unity. Intellect and vulnerability compete with testosterone fuelled machismo and a need to dominate. Customers, callers and barbers may feel free to talk in salons, but they also find themselves challenged and talked down. As a prime example, a conversation on the derivation of the ‘N’ word from ancient times, and a dispute on the alleged legitimacy of its use in any context now, is inevitably not an easy exchange of views. The line between banter and friction can be blurred.
On a physical level, the Peckham Barber shop in this drama is where a family bust-up happened, a long time ago. The extent of the physical altercation is finally coming out after years of heartbreak and rivalry.
It is, however, clear from much of the dialogue and the interaction of the characters that black barber shops are places where friendship can thrive, and human decency is in abundance. They are also places where the truth can be established, even if the process of getting there is painful.
Not just somewhere to get your hair cut
In the locations across Africa, London too, the impacts of colonialism and racism are debated at length. All the protagonists, in all the venues, are put under an uncomfortable spotlight, though the main criticism in the dialogue is aimed fiercely at nations and governments. Ramping up the history lesson, we are reminded of how the British brought together peoples from the various regions in order to create Nigeria as a solitary country. This leads on to a recurring joke about a Yoruba man, a Hausa man and an Igbo man, and what happens when a fly lands in their drinks.
Inua Ellams is a genius in the way he brings all the characters, nationalities, historic grievances and current needs together in a series of dramatic crises. He also maintains a sense of fun and vivacity throughout.
Many scenes end with a burst of cutting edge dance hall music. First, Fuse ODG’s classic Antenna booms out. The cast show their moves and swing the furniture high over their heads, enjoying themselves immensely as they prepare to engage in the next verbal spat in the next country.
A Ghanaian dancehall classic. Popular in Manchester too
All the way through, the characters have at least half an eye on the Chelsea v Barcelona match on a TV in the corner. How much more men only could this get?! A quick scan of YouTube reveals this match to be the semi-final of the Champions League in 2009, when Pep Guardiola, the man behind the Barca style of play, still had a full head of hair. In opposition is a side captained by John Terry (who has a certain reputation of an ugly kind), with Michael Essien scoring an absolute screamer, and Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o looking on. Chelsea, from what I have seen on Twitter, are the most popular Premier League team in Africa. And ironically they have arguably one of the most racist fan bases in Britain. Ask Raheem Sterling and the black man who was blocked from getting on the train in Paris.
A man's game in an all male venue (photo: Marc Brenner)
Getting back to our travels and temporal shifts, we are soon transported to Uganda. Surprisingly, there is no mention of Idi Amin, the man widely regarded as a cruel tyrant, responsible for much brutality in the country in the 1970’s. In later scenes in southern Africa the discussion turns to Nelson Mandela, a hero to most of the world, and Robert Mugabe, who was either a hero or a villain, or both, depending on who you ask. On stage, in Zimbabwe, barber shop clientele support for Mugabe’s land reclamation from white farmers is ambiguous. There is also some disparagement in a scene in South Africa of Nelson Mandela and his Truth and Reconciliation policy which he instigated at the end of apartheid. Winnie Mandela is championed here instead. As ever, there are at least two sides to every argument. But this seems more than just a few men not seeing eye to eye. To me, this represents the divisive, damaging legacy of the conflicts and struggle throughout history, in colonial and post-colonial times.
In the final scene there is family reconciliation in the barber shop in Peckham. The most relieved character is Winston, a Jamaican who shares the salon. It would be fascinating to have more from an African-Caribbean perspective, but that might need another play. A cool head, some wise reflections and a shared bottle of rum will have to suffice, in celebration of the end of so much bitterness. A long-kept secret is now out and a healing process can begin.
At peace at last
Away from the stage, there are numerous events and stories that still need a resolution. Responsibility for many of the world’s problems is yet to be acknowledged. This play presents an opportunity to reflect on how we respond to difficult, sometimes unbearable circumstances, and how we must resolve to live better lives. Conscience is a powerful force, and the conversation is far from over.
This is a terrific play. Hard hitting. Funny. Raucous even. Verbally intoxicating. Bitter-sweet at times, at other times just bitter. Always clever and engaging. We encounter people from different lands in a series of cultural exchanges, perhaps challenging our outlooks and values. Or maybe reaffirming them. And, to my surprise, the all-male cast is perfect for the occasion. For once, a female presence is simply not required!
Hats off to Inua Ellams on a sensational drama! (photo: cc Oliver Holmes, via The Stage)
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
Guardian Interview with Inua Ellams by Arifa Akbar