A cut above: ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ looks at common threads

The hair apparent: "Barber Shop Chronicles," a play with songs and dances about male social spaces across the world, will make its New York premiere on Dec. 3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Marc Brenner, BAM

Call it a clip show!

A new play looks at the central role of the barber shop in the life of black men around the world. “Barber Shop Chronicles,” a British production making its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Dec. 3, tracks a day in the life of six different barber shops, showcasing their importance as a place of bonding and socializing between men. The shops are scattered across Africa and London, but they all have a similar atmosphere — one that should feel familiar even to an American audience, said one of the show’s producers.

“There’s a real sense of community onstage,” said Kate McGrath. “Hopefully everyone who comes along will recognize themselves or their father, their brother, or their cousin.” 

To prepare for the show, Nigerian-born playwright and poet Inua Ellams spent time in barber shops across Africa, talking to the staff and customers. He created a story that takes place on a single day in 2012, starting at a barbershop in Lagos, Nigeria, and visiting similar haircut establishments in the African cities of Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala, and Harare, and finally ending in a shop in London, England, at the close of the day. 

Ellams found that the shops were places where men felt at home, and were able to discuss their troubles without fear of judgment. The barber shop, he discovered, was a good place for men to get their heads examined. 

“There was a growing awareness of male mental health and a lack of spaces for those conversations to take place,” McGrath said.

At each shop, the 12 members of the all-black, all-male cast play different roles, but they all watch the same soccer game, and they have similar conversations, taking on sports, fatherhood, politics, identity, and immigration — along with a few music and dance numbers. 

Audience members can also join the community on the stage. The director and cast members will hang out onstage before each performance, greeting and interacting with the the audience while a dee-jay plays, and making them feel like part of the family. 

“They’ll be welcomed into a space that feels very open and friendly,” McGrath said. “It’s a really great night out.” 

“Barber Shop Chronicles” at BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. between Rockland and Ashland Places in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Dec. 3–6 at 7:30 pm. Dec. 7 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Dec. 8 at 3 pm. $35–$95. 

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