Barber Shop Chronicles review – a razor-sharp exploration of black masculinity across the diaspora

I’m not a big fan of theatre. At least I wasn’t until I went to see Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds last Saturday. Before going to see this play, I had only ever been to see two other plays in my life. A production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was about 11 in primary school and a production of The Crucible during sixth form (both of these times at the West Yorkshire Playhouse). I enjoyed seeing these plays but I was always much more interested in films and television than theatre. I learnt about Barber Shop Chronicles after attending a poetry event called An Evening with an Immigrant while at university several months ago. It was a one-man spoken-word poetry show performed by Nigerian spoken-word artist, poet and playwright, Inua Ellams. I was very moved by his story: he was born in Jos, Nigeria but his family fled Nigeria to the UK when they faced persecution. He arrived in London when he was 12 years old but because of their uncertain legal immigration status his family moved to Ireland for 3 years before he could move back to London. Even today after 20 years of living in the UK and Ireland, Ellams still has to renew his passport every three years and Theresa May’s tory government is threatening to pass a bill which might make it even more difficult. If you want to read more about the ridiculous immigration system in the UK I would recommend Omolade’s blog post on her situation. I relate to both Ellams’ and Omolade’s situations in many ways but I’m so lucky in that I got my British citizenship in 2013 after seven years of living in the UK. In just under two weeks it will have been 11 years since I moved to the UK with my mum and my younger siblings to meet my dad and for us to start our new life in the UK. I will write more about my early experiences here in other blog posts but for now I want to talk about Barber Shop Chronicles!

The barber shop is the place of conversation and to convene for black men. I’ve experienced it all my life and it’s the one of the many fascinating things about black people that I’ve noticed. Saying that makes it sound like I’m not black when I am, I’m black and proud but black people are so multi-faceted and unique, we’re both envied and hated all over the world but let’s not get into that. To prepare to see this play I went for this ritual I had done many times before but this time I was made myself aware of the conversations going on around me. I walked into a black barber shop in a primarily South Asian and black working-class area of Leeds called Harehills. I didn’t have to wait long because the shop wasn’t very busy (it was a Thursday evening) and I sat down within 5 minutes of entering the shop.  I was called up to the chair and a barber asked me what I wanted, I said fade on the sides and back and take [pointing to my hair] this much off the top. As I was getting my hair cut a black woman walked into the shop, she seemed pissed off complaining to the owner about her daughter getting into trouble. The shop was a black male barber shop so she wasn’t there for a hairdo and it didn’t look like she was waiting for someone. The owner indulged the woman who may have had some personal issues then later a guy with West African accent I can’t place entered the shop and spoken in pidgin English to the owner who was West Indian. My hair cut didn’t last long and it was 🔥 so I paid the barber and walked out feeling great. Two days later I was watching Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents and the characters in the South London barber shop, Three Kings are discussing the use and merits of Pidgin English. A Nigerian character says, hundreds of languages only one unites us: Pidgin. The fact that a conversation which is immediately familiar to many black people was being shown to a predominately white audience was amazing to me as was the fact myself and my parents could see ourselves on stage was even more amazing.

Barber Shop Chronicles was actually inspired by an experience the writer, Inua Ellams had visiting a black barber shop in a Chapeltown (a primarily black working-class area) in Leeds so my experience was likely similar to his. Written by Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles is a stellar production which weaves several stories taking place in barber shops across Africa – Lagos, Accra, Harare, Johannesburg, Kampala – and (south) London. It was hilarious, relatable, touching, well-written, well-acted, well-directed and produced, just an all round incredible production. Before the play started the actors pretended to cut members’ of the audience’s hair, went around chatting to audience members while a DJ played afrobeats and afro bashment music. They all seemlessly transitioned into the beginning of the play as they crowded around to watch a football game. Each scene and location transitioned perfectly into another. The actors chanted, sung and danced each time the play transitioned into a new location. The set design was also extremely well done, authentic and strangely familiar.  When the actors transitioned from the South London barber shop to one in Lagos, I was transposed into forgotten childhood memories. My memories of Nigeria from birth until I moved when I was 9 are few, I have a few vivid ones such as my dad telling me he was moving to the UK when I was 7 but I can’t really sketch out a lot from my early childhood in Nigeria. That scene in Lagos triggered some of those repressed memories, I tried to vaguely remember my parents taking me to barber shops in Lagos and the set design seemed somewhat familiar. The dialogue was hilarious and authentic and the actors did an incredible job speaking a mixture of London English, various Pidgin English languages and other native languages such as Yoruba and Twi. It was really great to see my parents laugh and smile knowingly at the jokes about Nigeria and the use of Yoruba.

Although, the audience I saw it in was mostly white it was great to see a decent amount of other black people there as well especially considering Leeds is not nearly as diverse as London. The audience laughed throughout the play and I was so glad to see how much other black people enjoyed. I think we should support each other as much as we can especially in the arts. As well as being funny, Barber Shop Chronicles was really touching. It explored many difficult topics that aren’t discussed as much in black communities such as sexuality, identity and mental health. It showed black masculinity in all its complexities and different beautiful forms across different generations. Everyone involved did an absolutely amazing job. Barber Shop Chronicles is being performed for another run at the National Theatre from 29th of November 2017 to the 9th of January 2018. It is extremely popular so be sure to book tickets soon! Also check out Inua Ellams’ website: