Culture and Kinship in the Barber’s Chair

NOV 27, 2018

An interview with Barber Shop Chronicles playwright Inua Ellams

Born in Nigeria, Barber Shop Chronicles playwright Inua Ellams is an artist in multiple media: he has worked as a poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist, and designer, and he is the founder of The Midnight Run—an arts-filled, nighttime walking journey through urban spaces. He is the author of multiple published volumes of poetry, and his latest book, #Afterhours, is published by Nine Arches Press. Before Barber Shop Chronicles arrival in Cambridge, Ellams spoke by phone from the UK with A.R.T. Dramaturgy Apprentice Elizabeth Amos in October 2018.

Barber Shop Chronicles covers a lot of ground geographically—the play takes audiences to England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana—but the setting in all these locations is a barber shop. What unites these spaces despite their distance?

The barber shop has two resonances. In the UK, as I imagine it is in America, there aren’t many spaces where Black men can congregate without suspicion. The barber shop is a space where we can sit, chill for hours, and loiter in public space without fear. On the African continent and here (in the UK), they are safe spaces for men to speak about things associated with masculinity. It’s also where men go for advice on sexual health, finances, career, and relationships. That harkens back to traditional African communities where men would gather to talk and, now and then, someone would cut their hair. Those were the earliest barber shops—just shaded areas of the villages; outposts like rocks or cliffs or trees. It started there, in pre-colonial times, and from generation to generation it’s grown in relevance.

Many of the men in Barber Shop Chronicles are migrants and immigrants, part of the African diaspora. Would you mind sharing a bit about your own immigration story?

My father was a Muslim when he married my mother, who was a Christian. We lived in northern Nigeria. My father went to Mecca for the pilgrimage, and when he was there, he saw some things that he wasn’t too pleased with. When he returned to Nigeria, he said he was reconsidering his faith, that he didn’t want to be a Muslim anymore. Shit hit the fan. Life became very difficult for my family: a few people tried to kill him, and us, so we disappeared. That’s the story in a nutshell. And the story only ended this year when, after twenty-two years, my family was given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Just this morning, my little sister had her application for British citizenship approved. She’s gotten across that hurdle. The rest of us have to wait a year or two before we can apply.

Inua Ellams Headshot

Can you talk about the generational themes in the show, such as gaps in understanding between younger and older people and the pressure of familial expectations?

A strong element of African childhood is to be around your elders—to keep quiet and listen, even when they’re saying really problematic or questionable things. It’s part of knowing how to comport yourself in the wider public. It was important for me to show those relationships within the play, through an indigenous African lens, but also through a migrational one. The conversations men had around me in my youth still happen in barber shops. I wanted to put those on stage for all the Black men, specifically the young Black men, who grew up without their father figures around. There are a disproportionate number of Black men who are incarcerated. Statistically, here in the UK, Black men are incarcerated more than they are in America. That’s how parallel this discourse is; this absence in the family exists on both sides of the ocean. I wanted those young men to come to this show and find kinship and camaraderie, to hear these conversations on stage and not feel so alone.

One of the conversations in the play is about the politics of language: its evolution, translation, and preservation. As a writer, what is your position in this conversation?

I think it’s so fascinating how much culture is locked in language and, subsequently, how much cultural erosion happens when a language dies. As a poet, I’m engaged with the work of preservation. I create word machines that communicate a narrative, but they also exist as an archive of the interplay between the nuance, suggestion, and precision of a language. This is becoming increasingly important because of globalization. Languages are merging together, or erupting, or dying in some cases. I wanted to reflect those notions in the play. Even in the theater, there are different types of languages: poetic discourse, dialogue, the physical body, lighting, music. All of those things are a part of the construction, creation, and communication of a play. I wanted to pin that down, and bring it right down to cultural erosion, especially in the context of colonization, which all the countries represented in the play experience at the hands of the British.

As the show tours North America for the first time, what response do you expect from American audiences?

I expect everything and nothing. The play is about men talking—primarily, men talking about what it means to be a man. I think there’s a universality to this story. If you’ve ever belonged to a family, or sat down in a room quietly, or wondered about what it is to be someone else, then you have a gateway into the play. What the play doesn’t do is touch on barber shop culture in America. That subject is just so vast that the only way I could have done honor to it is to entirely rewrite the play. What I’m hoping is that Americans can find parallels between the conversations they have and conversations happening on the African continent. In those parallels, we might discover just how global, how similar, we are.

Interview by Elizabeth Amos, A.R.T. Dramaturgy Apprentice.


Image Credits
Inua Ellams. Photo: Oliver Holmes

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