Nigeria-born Inua Ellams’ new in-the-round play is epic in scope, yet completely intimate in the telling: barbershops run by, and run for, black men of all ages, in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the UK and beyond. Multi-role-playing (and singing, and dancing), the top-notch cast (including Fisayo Akinade and Cyril Nri from Channel 4’s Cucumber) transport the audience all around the world and offer searing insight into the idiosyncrasies — and heartache — of global Black culture.
“I’ve got an audition,” explains a young, light-skinned actor (Kwami Odoom, pictured) to his barber, “for a strong, black male.” This particular “chronicle” cuts to the heart of the intense 100-minute journey we go on: fathers beating their sons; a bragging, lip-smacking womaniser; the desire to keep your inner demons to yourself in order to look strong. All classic signs of “toxic” masculinity, all clichés of Black culture.
But we also see physically intimate, communal bonds of friendship; the courage to protect family; a run-away coward; a camp-as-Christmas fop. By the end of all these chronicles, we are no closer to understanding what it means to be a “strong, black male” — that most sought after cliché — than we are to understanding what it means to be a man.
Black barbershops infamously provide a social hub for communities. The National Theatre has literally become one: actors sit with the audience around the edge of the barbershop, waiting their turn, and audience even get invited to have their hair cut by the cast. The results of this inclusion and representation is palpable, with a huge reaction from everyone, especially the (high, for the NT) numbers of black people in the audience. A really exciting piece of theatre in more ways than one.
The Barbershop Chronicles is sold out but day seats and Friday Rush tickets are still available.