Playwright and poet Inua Ellams didn’t write “Barber Shop Chronicles.” He stole it.
He was intrigued after a friend gave him a flier advertising a course to teach barbers the basics of mental health counseling. What was it that could turn a haircutting session into a confessional? “I packed clothes and backpacked to Africa and went to various countries,’’ he says. “I listened to African men and transcribed their stories. I didn’t make them up. I met them.”
Ellams, who lives in London, crisscrossed the continent, eavesdropping in barbershops in South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and his native Nigeria. The play, which comes to the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center Dec. 5 to Jan. 5, moves back and forth from London to several African capitals, and the scenes are linked with music and dance that celebrate African culture and identity.
A dozen actors play 30 characters who chatter and bicker while getting their hair shorn and their beards trimmed. The banter is seemingly casual, but as the play unfolds over the course of a single day, the men discuss such issues as the relationships between fathers and sons, masculinity, child abuse, and power.
They tell the same jokes in London and Kampala. “In London, there are not safe places for black men to gather without the threat of harassment by law enforcement,” Ellams says. “Walking in the street is not safe. Soccer matches have been unsafe for black men, who have bananas thrown at them. In barbershops, we can be loud and noisy. We can enjoy ourselves and express ourselves. We can be free.”
The barbershop, one character says, is “a beacon for the community where men come to be men.”
The play was a runaway hit at London’s National Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but the concept is not new to American audiences familiar with the “Barbershop” film series. In a controversial scene from the first film, Cedric the Entertainer scandalizes his clients when he disses African-American icons, concluding, “If we can’t talk straight in a barbershop, we can’t talk straight nowhere else.”
The men in Ellams’s play engage in similar debates, whether they’re expressing varying points of view about such African political figures as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe or arguing over trivial matters like the difference between a sports fan and a mere supporter. Some of the men are adamant about their style preferences. One client wants an “aerodynamic” do. Another frets over an ingrown hair.
One character expresses angst over the imminent birth of his first child. How, he wonders, does one act as a father? Another recalls his own father’s biting words: “I’m not your friend. I’m your father.” It could be a line from an August Wilson play.
The men depicted in “Barber Shop Chronicles” are not figments of Ellams’s imagination. Some are based on people he met or knows. Others are amalgamations of folks he’s overheard in his travels. In one scene, the characters discuss an obsessed Ghanaian professor who spent nine years writing a Swahili-to-Spanish dictionary. Ellams put it in the play because it was such a beautiful example of the power of language. But the man wasn’t apocryphal. The playwright actually met the professor when he shared the stage with him during a panel discussion at a London university. “I said, ‘I thought you were a myth,’ ’’ Ellams recalls. “I was there as a poet and he was there as an academic to talk about the importance of language in translation. So much of our culture is locked in language.”
Serendipity aside, Ellams is quick to say that he sees himself as an interpreter. The play is not autobiographical, especially since he is balding and doesn’t frequent his local barbershop except as an eavesdropper. “I don’t come from a broken home,’’ he says, adding that his father cut his hair after his family moved to London when he was 12. “I was never lacking a father figure. I grew up in Nigeria with black African men as strong role models. There is no artistic angst, but these conversations are real.”
While their barbershops are clearly safe havens, the play does not overtly address police brutality against black men. Actor Maynard Eziashi, who was in the original London production and will be appearing at the ART, says that is by design. “Part of the reason is that it is so common for black men in particular,” he says. “Inua listened to what men had to say, and a lot of black men didn’t talk about it. It is just a normal, everyday occurrence.”
In this climate, the men ponder what it means to be masculine, what it means to walk around in black skin where they hear the n-word frequently or, in South Africa, are taunted by cries of “kaffir,” a similar slur. But the play isn’t just for men: Women know what it is like to sit in a chair and lean on a stylist with strong shoulders. “I think a lot of women wonder what happens to their boyfriends and brothers when they go to sit in a hot, smelly room,” Ellams says. “There are many women whose fathers left their families, and I hope they get a deeper insight into black masculinity.”
In one scene, an aspiring young actor tells his barber that he is having trouble figuring out how to portray a certain role. He is really wrestling with self-definition. Eziashi, a middle-aged actor who now sports “a bald hairstyle,” can relate to that quest. “In the world in which we live today, we are all just struggling with how to be an individual. It is difficult,” he says. “Who am I? Am I a black man or just a man? Am I more than that? That is something the play echoes. Mostly, I just try to be me.”
Barber Shop Chronicles
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Dec. 5-Jan. 5. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.