It is a rare occurrence indeed to see an audience as happy, as involved, and as diverse as the one that sat with me to watch Barber Shop Chronicles at the NT. What a glorious show. Such dynamism, energy, and an array of fantastic performances. But as much as the style is all there, this is a play of substance too. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen such an excellent examination of community and identity, of men and masculinity, as I have in this play centred around Black men and the networks and support structures they find in their local barber shops.
London, Lagos, Harare and South Africa… We follow a series of scenes in barber shops across Africa and in London. Vignettes, each comparing and contrasting with the others. The scenes are not necessarily linked by plot but by theme – the love of music and the legacy of centuries of exploitation, the failure of fathers and the hope for romance with women. Abuse at home, abuse in wider society. This is men talking about their experiences as men in the society they live in – all whilst going through the much-loved rituals of getting that mightily fine haircut.
There is humorous bravado here as well as worrying prejudice. There is heart-breaking pain and there are plenty of laughs, but this is a terrific depiction of how Black men find paternalistic support and guidance, even when their own fathers let them down.
A central plot quickly emerges. Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) works as an assistant barber in a place run by one of his father’s best friends, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), but there is an unspoken and unconfronted issue between the two. For it is the anniversary of the incarceration of Samuel’s father, and the boy believes Emmanuel had a role to play in this – one that betrayed his father – and that grudge is reaching boiling point.
And around this plot, the scenes across the world spin – much like the Mona Hatoum-inspired wire globe that hangs over their heads – as the remaining cast portray the vast array of characters we meet if only for a few minutes.
Each performance is impressive, but it is Inua Ellams’s superb writing that steals the show for he weaves critical dialogue on politics in amongst the laughs, the revelations and the traditions. There’s the questionable legacy of Mandela, the challenges of being part of the African diaspora, even the importance of pidgin and its role in Black society and culture. (And special mention to the effort that was made to update the script mid-run to reflect Mugabe standing down in Zimbabwe.)
This is a play that hits the head as well as the heart. Yet we are left considering the future as much as reflecting on the past, for Inua challenges us – and his men – to consider, how do Black men move forward from all this pain? How can they find role models that meet the changing face of masculinity? How can they reconcile themselves to their ancestors’ past – and their own – yet not let it hold them back? How can they move on from broken, unhelpful models of what it is to be a man?
These are the big questions left for us to ponder as the curtain falls on, unequivocally, one of the plays of the year. A gem of a show.
National Theatre, London, to January 9, 2018
All production images by Marc Brenner.