By Courtney Leigh Church, Nov. 18, 2018
Co-produced by England’s National Theatre, Fuel, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, playwright Inua Ellams’s “Barber Shop Chronicles” opens its sole Canadian production at London Ontario’s Grand Theatre.
“Barber Shop Chronicles” invites you to take a seat in barber chairs across Africa and in the UK. Moving between Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala, and London, the play follows snippets of conversations between a host of unique characters whose stories tangle together over time. The result is a beautifully chaotic collage of character portraits. For these men the barber shop is so much more than a place to stop for a trim; the shop serves as a social gathering place, confessional, counsellor’s office, and, in some cases, home.
The barber shop also serves as a place to tune into the world’s most beloved sport: soccer.
Characters from London to Johannesburg tune into a Barcelona-Chelsea football match, a thread that unifies the play’s fragmentary form.
Like a football match, the play unfolds dynamically. Scenes are intercepted mid-conversation, jokes are passed from shop to shop, and the occasional silent gesture is thrown in from the sidelines by cast members who, while not in the scene, remain on stage.
The shared love of soccer stands in stark contrast to the divisive conversations between barbers and their clientele.
Though friendly banter fuels many of the conversations, Ellams’s script does not hold back when it comes to weightier subjects. Topics range from racism, homophobia, colonialism, and abusive or absentee fathers. A young British-Zimbabwean man, Tanaka (Mohammed Mansaray), explains the derogatory history and subsequent reclamation of the N word. Generational divides are exposed in heated debates over the political influence of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.
The countless component parts flow together under Bijan Sheibani’s direction.
Many of the actors are tasked with representing several roles, and the actors’ capacity to dance between personas is impressive.
Tuwaine Barrett plays a bashful Wallace who can’t afford his haircut; later, as Mohammad, he crassly debates the pros and cons of dating a black woman versus a white woman.
Patrice Naiambana’s range is incredible. His elderly, shuffling Tokunbo crawls out of is cot in Nigeria at six in the morning to help Wallace look the part for a job interview. As Paul in London, Naiambana’s posture changes entirely as he quibbles over an ingrown hair that is causing him grief. As South African Simphiwe he steals the show with a drink in hand, trying to recall his absent father and mourning the son he was forced to abandon.
At the heart of the production is the captivating relationship between Samuel (Elliot Edusah) and his boss, Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu).
Edusah, fresh out of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, is a cogent Samuel in his debut professional role. A fiery young man, Samuel lets loose his pent-up aggression toward Emmanuel through razor-sharp contempt. Ofoegbu’s Emmanuel is soft-spoken and kind, clearly pained by Samuel’s constant anger yet never yields to Samuel’s constant verbal abuse.
Designer Rae Smith has brought barber shops from around the world to life. Advertisements in the rafters and “Three Kings Barber Shop” situate the scenes below. The shops are furnished with rickety, leather-backed chairs and comfy old couches and the stage is topped with a revolving wire globe under a cloud of electrical cords weaved through the rafters.
“In an interview with The Guardian, Ellams said, “I was born a man. It was only when I came to England that I became a black man.” “Barber Shop Chronicles” is a dynamic and insightful foray into black masculinity.”
Before the show audience members are invited onstage for a trim. Below are a few photos of the pre-show fun.
Barber Shop Chronicles
The Grand Theatre
Nov. 15 – 24
Purchase Tickets Online
Box office: 519-672- 8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.