The theatre chair has the ability to transport an audience member through countless stories, and the barbershop chair is no different. Barbershop Chronicles revolves around multiple barbershops in London and across Africa.
Each chair is linked as stories are swapped, friendships reinforced, and the ritual of hair cutting is performed. The barbershop chair holds countless men, and their stories too. We see men from all socio-economic backgrounds: one man wakes up a disgruntled barber at six in the morning because he’s late for an interview; another has made it big in London, and won’t let anyone hear anything else. The chair seems to catalyse the truthfulness of the stories. It is often true that our secrets are best kept with complete strangers.
Writer Inua Ellams, who was born in Nigeria, spent six weeks researching the play, travelling across South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana to record locals describing their individual lived experiences. This was refined to a four-hour play, then into the one hour-and-45-minute-long show. Ellam’s writing is dynamic as he weaves first hand experiences within his fiction. His writing is energetic and witty, but also profound and extremely powerful, particularly as he unpicks the problem of male masculinity and the way in which it often prevents discussions of mental health. In the programme we are told that mental illnesses are often stigmatised in black communities through derogatory language: Baffour Ababio, Psychoanalytic Intercultural Psychotherapist, speaks of his own experience of approaches to mental health, stating that in Lagos, Nigeria the Yoruba terms ‘were’ is linked directly to the psychiatric ward. In this sense, the idea of mental health is augmented to be something damaging and fearful, rather than a prolific issue which needs to be worked through. Indeed, the suffocative effect of such stigma mars the possibility of many men from seeking mental health help; such is the case in the UK, in which one in eight men have a mental health problem, and yet few men who suffer seek help for it. Therefore, as much as the play is a riot of fun and colour, sharing love of music and of dance, it is also a social commentary. It’s a play which fizzes, which demands to be seen, yet the sense of community, of humour and bravado are all the more striking for being means of concealing inner turmoil and emotion. In such competitive environments, where social status is its own currency, men often cannot afford to show their vulnerabilities.
The importance of language, and the ability for connection and openness between men, is framed with a discussion of the importance of pidgin language. Ellams reinforces the idea that language is a means of identifying with one’s culture, as well as enabling interaction with others. The audience seem to be intruders on these personal spaces, but Ellams invites us to share in these stories which sift through love, father and son relationships and, of course, football. It is impossible for any audience member not to be absorbed in a play which confronts issues so trenchantly two years after its original production, especially without fading. Cutting at times, but a truly brilliant play which highlights the essential conversations in which we need to be participating.