Full of life, heart and soul, this electric one-act play, directed by National Theatre’s Bijan Sheibani, unveils the significance of the Barber Shop for African men across the world; it is “a lighthouse, a beacon for the community, where men come to be men”. The piece is set in 6 different barber shops across Africa and in London, in which relationships with fathers and motherlands are underpinned by cultural ties and racial struggles.
With an invigorating soundtrack showcasing black artists in grime, R&B, reggae and afrobeats, the show is a breath of fresh air from start to end. Each scene change is accompanied by a song or dance, a noteworthy highlight being the upbeat choreography to Fuse ODG’s iconic ‘Antenna’, in which hair cloths are incorporated perfectly. Michael Henry’s vocal transitions are phenomenal, whisking us away to another continent with a cappella tunes which are instantly catchy. Rhythmically driven chants take us to Lagos, whilst impeccable four-part harmonies escort us to “Jo’burg”.
Twelve equally strong actors multi-role thirty separate parts with bags of energy. They embody the parts effortlessly while committing wholeheartedly to each one. It’s a shame, though, that by the end I can only recall the names of one or two characters, as the hectic flurry of different stories don’t allow the audience to fully connect with each one – it feels more like a sketch show than a play. Perhaps fewer fuller stories could be more meaningful and engaging than fleeting snapshots into the lives of thirty different men. I wanted to know more about each character, but I do acknowledge that that just wasn’t the aim of this piece; there is purposefully no elaborate plot. The focus is on Londoners Samuel and Emmanuel’s story, with other cities interwoven into the fabric of the London setting as well as being their own standalone little slices of life.
A plethora of weighty, complex topics surrounding black masculinity are discussed naturally and fluidly. It doesn’t feel formulaic, even though writer Inua Ellams manages to broach questions of not just race and gender, but sex, sexuality, cultural identity, parenthood, religion, language, politics and colonialism. Verbatim theatre (Ellams collated 60 hours of recordings across Africa, on which he based the script) blends with a subtle narrative thread to achieve an incredibly naturalistic feel.
In an interview with The Guardian, Ellams stated “I also wanted to welcome non-black, non-male audience members in the same way so they wouldn’t feel like they were eavesdropping into the world of the drama. I wanted to say, “You are all welcome””. However, the dialogue was so authentic that I did in fact feel like I was eavesdropping. This for the most part added to the unique charm of the performance, but occasionally resulted in the lines being virtually unintelligible. I felt quite guilty for not always being able to understand the thick Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ugandan, and Zimbabwean accents, but it did unfortunately impede my enjoyment of certain sections. It is evidently difficult to strike a balance between authenticity and accessibility. I later realised that official closed captions had in fact been provided for this stream by Stagetext, a company which strives to make theatre more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing. Most theatre productions, though, are not captioned. So had I been watching this show live, I would have experienced the same comprehension difficulties.
Being a linguistics student, I particularly appreciated the discussions of language and culture. Lighter conversations about the evolution and dying out of pidgin languages are soon displaced by provocative debates about the use of the ‘n’ word by black people; should it be reclaimed for empowerment or obliterated completely? Another pertinent theme is that of familial relationships. Anecdotes about fathers who “communicated with their fists” made me feel incredibly uncomfortable but are all too relatable for most characters, who simply laugh them off. Generational and cultural disparities are highlighted in attitudes towards the age-old rule “respect your elders”, while differences in African and European parenting styles come to light, especially when it comes to levels of discipline. Paternal relationships, or lack thereof, shape the men that these boys grow into; they always long for their fathers’ acceptance.
Football is a uniting factor for all 6 barber shops that we visit. Trying to make conversation with your customer but there’s no common ground? Football is always a safe topic. Awkward silence after a heated argument? Put the footy on. Some of the loveliest moments occur in the choral cheers and sighs while barbers and customers alike are glued to a screen or radio. The show gives a fascinating insight into stereotypical male culture, in which football is everything. After all, “the biggest tribe in Nigeria is Chelsea fans”.
In the current climate, where black men are one of the least likely demographics to attend the theatre, this production breaks down barriers with its all-male, all-black cast. It is hilarious, heart-wrenching, and its sheer energy is a sight to behold. It deserves to be watched.