By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Nov. 12. 2018
A community has a way of congregating around unexpected epicentres. Architects and urban planners can try to build community hubs. But when choosing where its meeting spots will be a community has a will of its own; it might be a church basement, a corner of a coffee shop that has been claimed by people spending their afternoons talking up a storm, a convenience store, a bookshop, a pub/bar or a hair salon.
The significance of these locations develops organically for a community. Often it is cultural communities that congregate around these locations. Perhaps a cultural community feels safe in this spot. Perhaps this location has belonged to this community for a long time. Perhaps when this spot was chosen this community did not feel safe or accepted in many other places.
You sometimes have to look closely to find these magnetic centres of conversation and communal sharing. These places are not always obvious, but when you do notice these locations, you will see an abundance of the natural theatre of life. Daily conversations and interactions, full of the nuanced joy, laughter and the sadness of ordinary life. In these places of community everything sacred and profane might be discussed: politics, family, love and business.
This is what Nigerian born British playwright and poet Inua Ellams discovered. Ellams found inspiration for a play when he was eighteen, and he started walking past black barber shops in South London district of Camberwell. Ellams said in an interview with the UK’s WhatsOnStage “I kept on wondering what was going on there, why people were there till 3:00 am in the morning”. This wondering and discovery led to the National Theatre/Fuel/West Yorkshire Playhouse hit “Barber Shop Chronicles.”
What Ellams discovered was the barber shops were a place of community for black men.
Ellams has said that through having conversations with people in barber shops, “I rediscovered a way of being that I’d left in Nigeria.” As a poet, performer and playwright Ellams often dissects the meaning of black identity. He has challenged the constructs of race. He famously said, “I was born a man, it was only when I came to England that I became a black man.” Prejudices in England led him to become more assertive and aggressive.
He says in Nigeria “doors opened” for him. This was not the case in the UK.
The setting of the barber shop gave Ellams a canvas in which he could explore the subject of black masculinity. Ellams says that the barber shop is a place where black men can be themselves. In “Barber Shop Chronicles” Ellams has chosen not just to dramatize one barber shop but six: one in London England, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, and Accra. The multiplicity of locations allows Ellams to explore black masculinity both in a British context and in an African context.
It is an interesting task to dramatize a location, let alone six. Something to look forward to when seeing “Barber Shop Chronicles” is Ellams’ masterful grasp of the rhythm of language in the different locations, as well a musical director Michael Henry’s vocal transitions which travel the story to each of the different cities. When you see “Barber Shop Chronicles” you will see a communal meeting spot through a kaleidoscope of six different cities in six different countries.
I can think of two similar Canadian plays that dramatize cultural community hubs, the first is Trey Anthony’s great play “Da Kink in My Hair”, which began in 2001. It is a play which, in many ways, feels like the female counterpart to “Barber Shop Chronicles.” “Da Kink in My Hair” dramatizes the voices of the women who frequent a Caribbean style hair salon. The second Canadian play is “Kim’s Convenience,” the story of a Canadian Korean variety store. “Kim’s Convenience” in its play form is well remembered by Grand audiences because the production launched its Canadian tour at the Grand in 2013. Interestingly “Da Kink in My Hair” and “Kim’s Convenience” both became popular television series after their stage incarnations. It makes one wonder if “Barber Shop Chronicles” will find a television home on the BBC or ITV.
In Canada “Da Kink in My Hair” and “Kim’s Convenience” became instantly huge theatre hits. “Da Kink in My Hair” began as a Fringe show and by way of Theatre Passe Muraille went on to a five-month run as a Mirvish Production. “Kim’s Convenience” has had multiple runs at Soulpepper and toured nationally. Similarly “Barber Shop Chronicles” has had a tremendous amount of success in the UK. All three of these plays are written by playwrights who recognized these unofficial hubs of their cultural communities, be it a hair salon, a variety store or a barber shop, and saw the natural theatre of these spots and put their culture on the stage.
My hope is that these successes of culture, community and theatre meeting become the norm instead of the exception.
Barber Shop Chronicles
The Grand Theatre
Nov. 15 – 24
Purchase Tickets Online
Box office: 519-672- 8800