Just a few days before I see Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Tory MP Anne Marie Morris casually uses the N-word in a meeting about Brexit. That anyone can “casually use” the N-word at all, let alone in public, astonishes me. Or it should astonish me – the implicit, deep-rooted racism of much of British politics has in some ways ceased to be shocking. But there’s something so sickeningly, complacently entitled about the comfort and the ignorance that allows someone to use the N-word at a public event as if it’s just part of an everyday phrase. Her apology, claiming that the use of the word was “totally unintentional” (how do you use the N-word unintentionally?!), is even worse.
During one scene in Barber Shop Chronicles, there’s an intense discussion about the N-word. Does it reclaim a term associated with abuse and oppression, ask the characters, or does it just make white people feel that it’s OK for them to use it again? (I think of Varaidzo’s essay in The Good Immigrant, in which she writes about the awkwardness of being the only black kid at a party when a rap song comes on: “I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend”.)
Language is a thread that runs right through the play, which uses the social space of the barber’s to connect African men from around the globe. Elsewhere, a Nigerian man frets that the nation’s Pidgin language is being diluted thanks to its integration with English. Others argue in return that all languages must evolve. Words can be freighted with historical meaning and trauma, yet words are also slippery and changeable, a tension that Ellams skilfully holds in suspension.
The barber shop of the title is also a talking shop. Spread out across Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala and London, these are hubs for the African male diaspora, criss-crossed with connections between nations and cities. One character here has an uncle or a brother or a son over there (relationships between fathers and sons are another connecting thread). As one man puts it, the barber shop is like a pub for these scattered communities, somewhere to kick back and open up.
It would be easy for these different places and scenes to feel fragmented, but Bijan Sheibani’s production is remarkably fluid. Shifts of location are achieved with a swish of the barbers’ capes as the cast dance between scenes, backed by some inspired music choices. Rae Smith’s design helps tie it all together, too, with a wire globe circling overhead and different barber shop signs that light up to show us where we are. The scope is at once epic and intimate.
When I interviewed poet and playwright Zodwa Nyoni a couple of months ago, she made it clear that seeing herself and people she knew represented on stage was absolutely crucial in her decision to start writing. There’s plenty of talk about diversity in the arts, but thinking about who and what is represented on stage is a vital first step – and one that can’t be underestimated. As Nyoni said of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I watch Barber Shop Chronicles, “seeing yourself here matters”.
In thinking about representation, I keep coming back to this blog by Vinay Patel. Writing about his desire to mainstream marginal narratives, Patel stresses that what he wants is “not parts that could be played by anyone”. He doesn’t want tokenism and he doesn’t want people of colour in everyman/woman roles that could equally be filled by white actors. Instead, he describes the ultimate aim of what he calls “Stage Four diversity”:
“Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.”
The characters in Barber Shop Chronicles are not parts that could be played by anyone. These individuals are deeply rooted in specific geographical, ethnic and cultural contexts, while not being purely contained or defined by those contexts. They are great. They are flawed. They are us and they are not us. They are allowed to be everymen in one moment and particular in the next. They are each unique facets of a black, African masculinity that is far from the homogenous mass that mainstream representations often paint it as.
The cast of 12 is large for a stage like this, but it feels even larger. Each actor transforms utterly from role to role, adopting new accents and gestures – little tics or habits that clearly distinguish each individual without ever straying into the territory of caricature. Such precision. While the huge collection of characters can sometimes be hard to keep track of, what they and the rich idiosyncrasies of the acting provide is a complex, multi-layered portrayal of black men, which is itself a political act.
Right at the end, an actor comes into the London barber’s for a trim. He wants to look the part of “strong black man”. I’m reminded of Desiree Burch’s blistering one-woman show Tar Baby and her anecdote about the demands of casting directors: be more sassy, be more urban. What they really meant was “be more black”. If there’s anything Ellams, Sheibani and their cast are attempting to shatter, it’s that reductive idea of the “strong black man”, that stereotyped blackness that stages and screens routinely perpetuate.
As that actor at the end of Barber Shop Chronicles is painfully aware of – and as the actors in Sheibani’s production have no doubt encountered – stories of black masculinity have been damagingly narrow. The black men in Ellams’ play, by contrast, embrace a wide range of backgrounds, attitudes, professions and political views. That shouldn’t be something that needs commenting on (when do I observe that white characters on stage occupy a variety of different positions?), but the fact that it is something that invites comment says a lot about why we need shows like this.
Barber Shop Chronicles isn’t perfect. (After all, what is?) There are moments when the implicit is made unnecessarily explicit, and characters who appear and disappear all too quickly, leaving me wanting more. But it is an important, necessary and most of all thrilling piece of theatre. (And fun. I don’t think I’ve said enough about how fun it is.)
And it matters.