Our spaces, our stories – Barber Shop Chronicles

Intimacy isn’t a word that is often associated with platonic interactions between men. Add to that the various stereotypes of hardened masculinity assigned to black men and the concept of intimacy and its possible manifestation within that group is rendered further alien. That is why when mainstream depictions of black men rest so heavily on negative stereotypes, it is heartwarming to see displays of black male bonding on a level that most people outside of this group do not get to experience in most of the media we consume. Such was the case when I recently saw Innua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm Road.

If the various blog posts on Daylight Snobbery are any indication of the sort of activities I enjoy, then it will be no surprise to you that I love live shows, and in particular live theatre. Over the past year I have been very fortunate to watch live productions that not only majorly featured black actors, but whose stories are centred on black lives, cultures, and experiences. These include an English National Opera production of Porgy and Bess, the brilliantly moving play The Convert written by Danai Gurira and featuring Letitia Wright, a stage adaptation by the National Theatre of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and most recently, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles.

Barber Shop Chronicles does just what it says on the tin. It depicts the stories of many men from an array of African countries (the entire cast is male) whose lives, fears, loves, frustrations, and hopes are shared with one another (and the audience) as they sit in their respective barber shops. In this production, as with real life, the barber shop functions as much more than a space where men can get a haircut. It is a communal space, where anything can be discussed, debated, or dismissed.

When I talk to the black men in my life I am always amazed by the special bond that a lot of them seem to have with their barbers. Many a time I’ve been mildly irritated by a brother, male cousin, or friend whom in spite of my pleas to make haste and find the nearest barber to assist them, have insisted that they had to visit a specific barber – their barber. Just any old barber would not do.

On one occasion I happened to be sitting at a barber shop with a friend of mine while he waited and eventually got his hair cut. Having never spent such an extended amount of time in a barber shop, I found myself somewhat lost but also amused by the discussions that were occuring around me. I kept quiet as the men discussed various pop culture topics alongside more personal issues. Although I’ve heard many stories about the relationship black women have with hair salons, this is rather alien to me as I’ve always opted to handle my own hair. So it was with an air of fascination that I sat as a passive observer, witnessing a sliver of a world that I’m largely shut out from. Watching Barber Shop Chronicles evoked similar feelings of amusement and wonder.

As I watched the play, I often found myself charmed by the familiarity of some of the characters, many of whom hail from sub-Saharan Africa, much like me. Nonetheless, as a woman, it was as baffling as it was refreshing to gain an insight into the goings on of this typically all-male space. There was no doubt that the fictional stories acted out displayed the very real phenomenon of black male intimacy, an all-too often neglected aspect of the black male experience. And, as I continue to explore the world of theatre, I can only hope that more of these stories are shared.