Sydney Festival: Barber Shop Chronicles

Ilias Bakalla
21st Jan 2018

Have you ever wondered what role a hair-cut plays in the quest for queer rights in Uganda? Or do you seek to understand alcoholism in post-apartheid South Africa? Or maybe you just want a thematic lesson in black masculinity that can trigger your heart strings and spawn laughter from deep in your gut. For roughly and hour and forty-five minutes you can experience all of the above through Inua Ellams' upbeat and dynamic production Barber Shop Chronicles. Hailing from Britain’s Nations Theatre, it’s running at the Seymour Centre as a part of the 2018 Sydney Festival.

The performance began whilst everyone was filing in and finding their seats; the dozen or so characters had created an interactive space on stage. The stage, being at the bottom of the room, was a place where members of the crowd could go get a faux hair cut or join the others dancing to a DJ mixing heavy grime tracks. Metaphorically welcoming the audience into the atmosphere of a British barber shop and black culture by extension.

This barber shop became the base for the story that would unfold. Over the course of the play the audience visited barber shops in Kampala (Uganda), Harare (Zimbabwe), Johannesburg (South Africa), Lagos (Nigeria) and Accra (Ghana). Each transition came with a musical number and a choreographed dance with various barber utensils, making the performance a joyous and fast-paced experience.

Bouncing between the different locations, revealed the complex relationships diasporic African communities have with their homeland, though this mechanism, the play drew out the nuances of black culture.

One conversation that particularly stuck with me addressed the issue of pidgin English dying out in the British black community. With this comes a loss of culture and identity as they risk being conflated as ‘Black British’ or ‘Black American’. It triggered my own adherence to this dichotomy as I patiently waited for them to visit an American barber shop… they never did. The discussion touched on notions of colonialism continuing to revere its head in the post-colonial age, whereby the main argument for adopting a British tongue stemmed from the vast amount of employment opportunities it provides.

A later scene pedalled this same ideology and contained the stand out performance of the evening; a drunken character from Johannesburg, launched into a monologue expressing his grave disappointment with Mandela. And he attacks the use of wine as a slave wage, since it created intergenerational addiction. He is raw and powerful, shaking with rage in an alcoholic haze!

The monologue undermined a figure who has been blanketed as a hero to all members of the black race. In the West, the subtle differences between the South African community and their political opinions don’t get much air time so it was refreshing perspective for the audience (which included the Prime Minister) to hear.

Barber Shop Chronicles really codified the importance of the barbershop in the development of the contemporary black man. The medium of music and drama made the messages regarding sexuality, post colonialism and politics digestible. Given Australia’s commonwealth status, and proximity to Australia Day, it feels important to connect with different faucets of British culture, not merely the aristocratic, Buckingham Palace dwelling elite.

Barber Shop Chronicles is on as part of the 2018 Sydney Festival at The Seymour Centre until January 28th. Production photo by Prudence Upton.