CAMBRIDGE — When two men angrily square off in a barber shop at one point in “Barber Shop Chronicles,’’ the shop’s owner quickly tries to calm things down by reminding them of the true reason they and other customers patronize his establishment: “This is a space for talking.’’
Indeed, haircuts do take a distant second place to conversation in the half a dozen barber shops across Africa and England that are spotlighted in this evocative, vibrant, deliberately discursive play by Nigerian-born playwright Inua Ellams. Directed at a rapid clip by Bijan Sheibani, “Barber Shop Chronicles’’ has arrived at the American Repertory Theatre as the next-to-last stop on its US premiere tour, featuring a dynamic, all-male cast of 12.
Its title notwithstanding, Ellams’s play registers less as a collection of stories than as a medley of voices. There is considerable value in that structure, particularly when the voices are as vivid, the personalities are as big, and the issues are as resonant as they are in “Barber Shop Chronicles.’’ Yet there are also tradeoffs stemming from the play’s quick-sketch approach, imposing limits on how deeply the play explores the issues it raises and on how well we get to know any of its multitude of characters. (Most of the actors play more than one role.) Overall narrative cohesion is decidedly not the strong suit of “Barber Shop Chronicles’’; there are a few weak spots, abrupt endings, and scenes that feel underdeveloped in terms of situation or characterization.
But by the end the play has added up to an illuminating composite portrait of African men from all ages and backgrounds who, however confident they might appear, are seeking solidarity and even, in some cases, solace, as they settle into a chair. Many of them are wrestling with change, in their countries and in their own lives. What unites them all is soccer: At each shop, no matter the country, a soccer match is on the TV or radio, avidly followed by proprietors and customers alike.
Ellams has a marvelous ear for dialogue, and director Sheibani gives each cast member a chance to shine. Beyond the rivers of talk, the actors also pull out the stops during interstitial sequences of song and dance (the music direction is by Michael Henry, and the movement director is Aline David) that build bridges between scenes and liven up the stage at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center.
(Disclosure: The ART presented a production of my son Matt’s opera, “Crossing,’’ and this week is presenting a festival of performances by the American Modern Opera Company, where he serves as co-artistic director.)
Wherever they hail from, the men in “Barber Shop Chronicles’’ never sound less than authentic as they banter, bicker, spin yarns, confide in or confront one another in barber shops in Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; Kampala, Uganda; Johannesburg, South Africa; Harare, Zimbabwe; and London, England. Their conversations cover a wide range and, crucially, the play’s issues seem to emerge organically from the concerns of each character: the treatment of immigrants; the complexities of dating; the challenges of fatherhood (and how much weight to give the examples set by their own fathers); the role of language in sustaining national identity, the political leaders who inspire and the ones whose corruption disgusts; the tensions between generations whose experiences and perspective could not be more different; the toxic legacy of colonialism.
With mounting fury, Simphiwe, a South African man in his late 40s played by Patrice Naiambana, inveighs against the racist apartheid system that disfigured his nation, with lingering effects: “The fact that we never got to deal with it manifests in violence … Generations emasculated, called boys for centuries, taking it out on each other because we never got to get mad and say we were [expletive] around for 350 years and no one was held accountable.’’
Amid scenes of camaraderie and contention, it is the London shop that provides a through-line in “Barber Shop Chronicles.’’ The play returns repeatedly to the shop, where a young British-Nigerian barber named Samuel (Elliot Edusah) behaves with steadily escalating hostility toward middle-aged Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), the Nigerian immigrant who owns the shop. The reason for Samuel’s resentment is eventually made clear, a denouement that deepens our understanding of both men.
There’s a cumulative richness to “Barber Shop Chronicles’’ that may only impress itself on your mind after the performance — along with a resolution to listen just a bit harder the next time you’re getting a haircut.
BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES
Written by Inua Ellams
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Coproduction by Fuel, National Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Jan. 5. Tickets start at $25. At: 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org