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Can I Touch Your Hair? at the Vault Festival | Review

Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair?
Lekhani Chirwa’s one-woman show is about, well, hair. That’s it, really. What’s hair got to do with anything, anyway?

Everything, it seems. Though the title of the show might be a deliberate invocation of unshared experiences, the politics of natural black hair isn’t necessarily such a new topic. Afros have long been signifiers of politics, personality and pride. But the double bind is that hair is still hair. How can ‘natural’ hair be the subject of political debate, when it’s just leaving things how they are naturally?

No-one’s crying ‘black power’, they just growing natural hair. It’s this intersection of everyday life and hyperreal politics where Chirwa locates her show.

The stage is more or less empty, and the lighting changes are jarringly simple. Costume choices are unremarkable, perhaps suggesting a kind of ‘everywoman’ figure. There are the usual awkward, invasive, patronising encounters with uneducated colleagues, creepy bosses and too-woke friends.

There are stories about mothers and fathers, childhood friends and new friends. In a way, it all feels quite routine. Though stories written and performed by young, mixed race northern women are few and far between, similar tropes of under and over woke white people, weird colleagues and finding one’s truth abound.

Chirwa’s script seems to be something of a commentary on ‘the narrative’. Her delivery is quite awkward and very abrupt. She doesn’t attempt much differentiation between her characters and doesn’t demarcate the space between scenes. For some, this might just come across as a narrow acting range; Chirwa seems to comment on the worn out narratives expected of black spoken-word performers. She seems to forget her lines frequently and has to ask for prompts for her director. This again seems to indicate boredom with repeating given stories. She might have just forgotten her lines, though…

4 stars

Review by Thomas Froy

Deliberate or otherwise, ‘Can I Touch Your Hair?’ makes for a compelling examination of what’s expected of black storytellers.

It’s 1998. Lekhani feels like she’s the only mixed-race girl in Cumbria. And she’s just realised she doesn’t know what to do about her hair.

I hear black people don’t wash their hair…

Join Lekhani on her hair journey as she discovers that she can’t wash her hair with 99p Alberto Balsam, that some white people actually do find her hair distracting, to finally accepting her Afro hair.

“Why do white people feel so entitled to touch my hair?”

A bold yet humorous piece, this is an exploration of what cultural appropriation really means, the struggle of having Afro hair, but more importantly, the pride.

Can I Touch Your Hair? Is the first full-length play by actress Lekhani Chirwa. It is debuting at VAULT Festival having been previously scratched at OvalHouse, Theatre N16 (as part of the HerStory festival), and the Actor’s Centre (as part of the Blacktress 2018 season).

8-9th March 2019


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