‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ explores Black identity with refreshing authenticity

Cal Performance/File

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Barbershops possess a magical, charming quality — one that somehow opens people up and allows them to be their most gregarious selves. Playwright Innua Ellams takes advantage of this fertile ground for genuine human interaction in his play “Barber Shop Chronicles.” He utilizes this setting as the backdrop for a story that spans six cities around the world (Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Accra and London) over the course of a single day.

These chronicles let the audience into a world that is not often put on display, making the experience of hearing these new voices a riveting one. The men who find themselves in these barbershops come from all walks of life. Through candid conversations, they explore what it means to be a Black male in today’s society — with each character giving us a glimpse of what exactly that encompasses.

The play, put on by Cal Performances, is a part of the Berkeley RADICAL programming initiative geared toward diversifying the narratives told onstage. The five productions that make up the citizenship series each have a unique take on immigration, nationalism and other topics examining what it means to belong. In this sense, “Barber Shop Chronicles” delves into a world of kinship and connection that is not typically brought to the public’s attention.

Before the play even begins, the sprawling set designs take precedence, immersing the audience members in the world they are about to be submerged into. Street lamps, hanging wires and faded billboards give the whole room an immediate urban feel. A giant hanging globe containing a disco ball in the center of it lights up and gradually spins to locate where the scene is taking place on the map. The whole cast stops its dancing around the stage, Rihanna’s “Work” comes to a halt and the lights turn off the show has started.

The sudden shifts in location and in characters can be jarring at first, but the connection among these vignettes slowly emerges. In the backdrop of all of these barbershops is a soccer game between Chelsea and Barcelona. As this match plays in the background and as the men take their seat in the chair, candid conversation about topics ranging from ingrown hairs to South African politics unfolds on stage.

The chemistry between each of the characters is palpable, and the bonds between them are so believable that you forget that they only met a couple of seconds ago. Each of the actors brings out such a vibrant liveliness in his character, but one of the most compelling dynamics is the one in South London between an older store owner and a young man whose issues stem from his father. Seeing these characters play off of each other is captivating to watch as they work through difficult issues. The information revealed at the end of the story makes these interactions even more meaningful.

What is most commendable about this play is that it has no qualms about tackling serious subject matter and does so in a mostly seamless fashion. Throughout its nearly two-hour, intermissionless run time, many taboo topics are explored. In the barbershop setting, these ventures into controversial areas occur in a natural, conversational way rather than in a manner that is contrived. In one scene, characters have a thought-provoking discussion about the N-word. This scene manages to emphasize the historical context and the terms of usage of the word today in a natural way, providing a fresh introspection.

This play is all about providing a unique platform for voices that are not often highlighted in various forms of art. Barbershops can be thought of as mundane places of necessity, but Ellams shows how they can be a place as grand as the theater and as educational as the schoolroom. These barbershops are more than just a place to get a haircut; they are a place where Black men can gather to discuss the world they live in.

Ellams challenges preconceived notions of the Black male by taking a deep dive into Black male identity and presenting perspectives of those who fall under that category. The result is beautifully provocative and productive human interaction displayed in a way that causes reflection.

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].