Review: Barber Shop Chronicles

John Nathan has mixed feelings about a play full of African voices


In London, a son defends the reputation of his jailed father; in Johannesburg, a man rails against Mandela’s peace, which has kept blacks poor and allowed whites to get off scot-free, while in Kampala, Uganda, the talk is of persecuting gays and how it brings about boycotts of exports abroad. Meanwhile, back in London, Nigerian Muslim Muhammed discusses the pros and cons of dating white and black women, possibly at the same time.

In this delightfully rambling play by the Nigerian poet and dramatist Inua Ellams these are just some of the subjects that occupy the minds and mouths of those who frequent the African equivalent of the French salon or the British pub — the barber shop.

Take each of these narrative strands and it’s hard to imagine any of them amounting to much. But Bijan Sheibani is a director whose mastery of human traffic resulted in an almost balletic revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen and also an unforgettable English version of Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Holocaust play, Our Class. This time, Sheibani creates something that seems rooted in chaos but is in fact hugely disciplined and drilled.

For just as this production’s cast of 12 men seems settled in pre-show revelry that involves dancing with random members of the audience to tunes played by a hip-hop DJ, the ensemble gather like iron filings to a magnet to watch on TV an unfolding story that links all this play’s African barbershops — and one in Peckham — the Champions’ League final between Barcelona and Chelsea.

Ellams is more interested in exploring a culture than telling a story. Parental responsibility is a recurring theme. One father fears he lacks the wisdom to raise his newborn. Another carries the burden of being abandoned by his own father, a pattern now passed down to his own son like an unwanted family heirloom. The stories are no more than mildly moving, but they are so vividly told you can’t help but be swept up by the whirligig energy of it all.

It’s all superbly acted, but Patrice Naiambana is outstanding. In his various roles, which include a barbershop owner in Lagos and a drunk in Johannesburg, Naiambana holds the audience through the sheer force of his charisma.

And as for the culture, no one puts it better than Caribbean-born Winston (Anthony Welsh) who says to his African customers, “How many of you go to the pub? Yu na drink! This is your pub. That’s why you fill up the barbershop.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive