Fresh Cuts

NOV 27, 2018

Finding bravado, and vulnerability, in barber shop masculinity

by Ifeoma Fafunwa

Please note: This piece contains racial slurs.

A barber, a chair, two mirrors, a generator, and a Chelsea versus Barcelona match are all that is required for a fully functioning African barber shop. Like churches, barber shops exist on almost every city street in Africa. From Lagos to London, Accra to Johannesburg, then Kampala and Harare, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles takes us on an exhilarating and revealing journey through realistic barber shops and into the hearts of African men. This beautifully written play offers an engaging and timely view of the usually guarded vulnerabilities and dreams of strong Black men. It’s up close and personal, and it is happening now, when the world shines hard lights on patriarchy and yet queries the systemic discrimination reserved for Black men living in the West.

Wielding clippers and swirling protective capes with matador precision, refreshingly honest characters speak passionately and with a political incorrectness that is becoming scarce in the West. There are impassioned conversations about the treatment of gays in Uganda, the advantages and disadvantages of a jobless Black man choosing to date a white woman over a Black woman, the deterioration of Pidgin English, the unresolved anger stemming from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and even what “nigger” versus “nigga” means in America. Energetic scene changes with gloriously loud music and dance punctuate this deep and fluid discourse. Yet it’s the recurring themes of failed leadership and futile father-son relationships that tug at the heartstrings. These men tell of fathers who have been either absent or dishonest, harsh disciplinarians or simply uncaring. Fathers who, like our leaders, have been selfish—failed leadership which has left men with no choice but to leave their mothers and motherlands in search of a living wage, and who are now vulnerable and open to judgement from the rest of the world.

Patrice Naiambana and Ekow Quartey in Barber Shop Chronicles.

However, in a world where men must be men, toughness is required to prepare young men to take up position and maintain the structures of patriarchy: toughness, bullishness, intense masculinity, and proven sexual prowess. Yet, in the struggle to be an alpha male, men themselves become casualties of the competition. And where men are expected to be physically, mentally, and spiritually superior to women, reality often falls painfully short—especially when “bigger” and “badder” men leave the average man without access to the resources he needs to reign supremely within his home.

Still, irrespective of socioeconomic class, African men are culturally privileged and pampered by the women in their lives. I know from having three sons that barber shops are sacred spaces for maleness, so in the play we don’t see the contributions of mothers, sisters, and wives in the lives of these men. Nevertheless, Barber Shop Chronicles leads us towards progress and parity by gently unfurling limitations of patriarchy and asking thought-provoking questions: “If a man is an Island, is he still a man?” “How do we move forward? What do we do next?” Answers are skillfully revealed just beneath the telling when the writer pulls into focus a collaborative resilience and special kind of tolerance between these men of different African nations. It is then that answers emerge; empathy sneaks in through the door; kindness drifts in on a line just before respect is punctuated—respect for the struggle they know each man is going through. As one character observes in the play, speaking partly in Nigerian slang, “Even for dark times, the barber shop na lighthouse, a beacon for the community where men come to be men mehn!”

In the end, to use the Nigerian saying quoted in the show, “Who no know go know”: we all leave with a better understanding of what we need to do for an improved world. Barber shops are places where weary men, like cars at a mechanic shop, are patched and spruced up, given a fresh look and a pat on the back to go back out there and face the toughness of an unreasonable world—perhaps even safe spaces where men can let go of worries and just sit beside their humanity.

I say “Kudos” to Inua for this entertaining and important play!

Elliot Edusah in Barber Shop Chronicles.


Ifeoma Fafunwa is the Director of HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True, produced at A.R.T. in January 2018. She was the 2017-2018 Mary I. Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is also the founder and creative director of iOpenEye, a Nigerian production company driving social change through performance art.


Image Credits
Patrice Naiambana and Ekow Quartey in Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo: Ryan Hartford
Elliot Edusah in Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo: Ryan Hartford

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