“Is Africa juicy enough to make it on its own?” asked a student at an economics symposium I attended years ago when I was an undergraduate at Westminster Business School. The question was in reference to whether it is still necessary for Africa to continue to rely on handouts from Western governments. The answer was decidedly non-committal but remained a talking point on campus for days afterwards. “Africa is not one country.”
My hairline has somewhat receded since those days, and my broad mind and flat stomach have swapped places, even if I say so myself. But it is, sadly, still necessary to point out the ‘one continent, many countries’ line, as Barber Shop Chronicles does, though with more style and subtlety than the economic analyst. A quote I first heard from the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, used in the play remains relevant today. (The archbishop used the punchline in sermons and speeches but did not, contrary to some sources, originate it.) “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”
It was another Desmond that came to mind as the pre-show entertainment started in the Dorfman Theatre some moments before the published start time of this lively production. Desmond Ambrose, the fictitious character played by the late Norman Beaton in the Channel 4 Television situation comedy Desmond’s, could well have been a part of proceedings in the play’s London barber shop, the only one that features in this production geographically outside Africa. Particular scenes in this play could quite feasibly have been set in the Walworth Road, or Peckham High Street, both a bus ride away from Waterloo, the nearest transport hub to the National Theatre.
There’s a decent amount of audience participation before the lights go down for the show proper, entirely voluntary and with no compulsion or obligation whatsoever. Those who wanted a piece of action had their moment in the spotlight. Certain members of this most cosmopolitan opening night audience were either dancing to the beat of the upbeat music or otherwise sat in barber chairs. It was the sort of music that, if turned up properly to Notting Hill Carnival volume levels, would be listened to with one’s chest. Whether those seated on stage actually had their hair done, or whether money was actually exchanged for doing so, I couldn’t possibly say. But if nothing else had happened I don’t think I would have felt short-changed, as there was much to observe in the comings and goings of various characters.
The play itself, then, tackles some deep and meaningful subjects that put my own conversations at the local barber shop to shame. Whilst I may discuss the weather, or how awful London traffic is, or how temperamental the self-service checkout was at the supermarket the other day, these are characters that discuss, sometimes with much vigour, economic policy and the distribution of wealth, the mistreatment of Winnie Mandela by those who apparently should have defended her, and the role of Pidgin English in the twenty-first century.
Most performers remain on stage most of the time in this in-the- round production, with cast seated on chairs positioned around the perimeter of the performance space. The accents sound authentic to my ears, but I wonder if people from Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra would say the same.
The observations on the British justice system are highly intriguing, stated as they are from an ‘outside looking in’ perspective. The scene changes are works of art in themselves, ranging from all-out choreographed dance sequences to softer chanting of place names to establish the setting for the following scene.
Outmoded opinions are derided – openly laughed at here, with the audience appreciating the humour emanating from the mocking. There is much other cultures could learn from this sort of approach, to laugh in the face of stupidity rather than be offended or angry by it. Some of the performances may have been hammed up, but this didn’t take away from the enjoyment and exhilaration of this production. While this is very much an ensemble piece of theatre, I cannot help but single out Hammed Animashaun’s Mohammed for an utterly hilarious account of a date and the morning after the night before. Tanaka (Simon Manyonda) may, in character, have annoyed one or two of the others on stage, but I found his contributions insightful – I wasn’t aware of the etymology of the ‘N’ word, for instance.
Filled with laugh-out-loud humour as well as food for thought, this electrifying and magnificent production is theatrical heaven from beginning to end.
Review by Chris Omaweng
One day. Six cities. A thousand stories.
Newsroom, political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world.
This dynamic new play leaps from a barber shop in London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. These are places where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always telling.
Barber Shop Chronicles is Inua Ellams’ third play at the National, following the exhilarating The 14th Tale and Black T-shirt Collection.
Barber Shop Chronicles
A co-production with Fuel & West Yorkshire Playhouse
a new play by Inua Ellams
Running until 8th July 2017
Running Time: about 1 hour 45 minutes. There is no interval.