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A Cut and a Conversation

‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ American Rep explores the diaspora through twists and talk

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A Cut and a Conversation
The ensemble of the US and Canada touring cast of “Barber Shop Chronicles.” photo: Tim Trumble

Almost a decade ago, poet and playwright Inua Ellams was given a flyer about a workshop where barbers learned how to counsel their clients. This launched a pilgrimage across Africa during which Ellams stopped in at different barbershops to experience the community created by men in those spaces. After haircuts and conversations in six countries, the play “Barber Shop Chronicles” was born. Now the show is playing with an all-black cast at the American Repertory Theater through Jan. 5.

The dynamic play delves into the experience of African men and the conversations, conflicts and community they have at the barbershop. “I tried to go places where English was being spoken in the African continent and to see what conversations were happening there,” says Ellams. The men in the show crack jokes and talk about politics, relationships and pop culture. The show is set in a number of different locations around Africa and in London, showing that despite the diaspora, or perhaps because of it, these groups of African men are often having similar conversations and similar experiences. It shows both the diversity and unity of the African experience.

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These are unguarded, unfiltered conversations among friends. “Barber Shop Chronicles” showcases the diverse, multi-faceted personalities of black men in a portrayal that runs contrary to the aggressive, one-sided facade the media tend to portray. 

Born in Nigeria, Ellams lives in London, where his experience as a black man is very different than in his native country. “I saw all these stereotypes of African men in mainstream media and they weren’t matching up with the African men in my life,” he says. “I realized it was bigger even than the African experience. I’m an African, I’m a Nigerian, and I created this in a country where those things are volatile.”

Ellams hopes to take the show around the world, and he won’t make changes for different audiences. He intentionally wrote the play to include Yoruba language, native music and chants specific to each country in the show. He says, “I hope the show demystifies the monolith that the African continent is seen as.”

On opening night at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square, audience members sang along with South African melodies and clapped their hands to Zimbabwean beats. Ellams says he’s seen African audiences identify with the play in every country in which they’ve performed. He recalls a performance in London: “There were older members of the Nigerian community in the audience and they began responding to the actors. They weren’t seeing actors on stage — they were seeing their sons.”