Sunday, January 21, 2018

Barber Shop Chronicles - Sydney Festival

Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellems.  Sydney Festival: Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, UK, at Seymour Centre, York Theatre, January 18 – 28, 2018.

Director – Bijan Sheibani; Designer – Rae Smith; Lighting Designer – Jack Knowles; Movement Director – Aline David; Sound Designer – Gareth Fry; Music – Michael Henry; Fight Director – Kev McCurdy; Staff Director – Stella Odunlami; Barber Consultant – Peter Atakpo; Company Voice Work – Charmian Hoare; Dialect Coach – Hazel Holder; Tour Casting Director – Amy Ball.

Cast: (alphabetical order)
Tanaka / Fiifi РDavid Ajao; Kwabena / Brian / Fabrice / Olawale РPeter Bankolé; Wallace / Timothy / Mohammed / Tinashe РTuwaine Barrett; Musa / Andile / Mensah РMaynard Eziashi; Samuel РBayo Gbadamosi; Winston / Shoni РMartins Imhangbe; Tokunbo / Paul / Simphiwe РPatrice Naiambana; Emmanuel РCyril Nri; Ethan РKwami Odoom; Elnathan / Benjamin / Dwain РSule Rimi; Kwame / Simon / Wole РAbdul Salis; Abram / Ohene / Sizwe РDavid Webber.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Though I was unable to follow about 60% of the dialogue, because of the dialects and accents of most of the characters in Barber Shop Chronicles, the importance of the story still came through. 

People from post-colonial Africa, particularly in this play from Nigeria (now Niger, pronounced Nijair), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Uganda and South Africa, for many different reasons left their homes and settled in Britain.  Inua Ellems, born in Nigeria, has become a significant “cross-art-form practitioner: a poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist, designer”.  His concern in this play is the state of play among the current community of first and second generation African immigrants, especially the men struggling to make their way in Britain.

Their barber shops are hardly a source of much wealth, especially since their customers are almost entirely from this small community, trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (to use a phrase common in the England of my childhood there, after the Great Depression and World War II).  But it is in these barber shops, run and frequented, of course, only by men, that issues like their relationships with women – their wives in particular – and the younger generation, who know little about the past histories of their parents; and their attitudes about their home countries and the politics there still today, become sources of constant talk, argument, conflict – and hopefully some kind of accommodation.

Though I could follow little of the details (for example of old prejudices about Ibo and Yoruba in Nigeria; of differences of views about Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe and the future now he is no longer President; or of the conflicting views about Nelson Mandela as a failure or great man in South Africa), I began to see the barber shops as a kind of TRC – a Truth and Reconcilation Commission, especially for the younger generation to be told disturbing truths about what their parents had done, to survive and escape in the turmoil of the past.  They may be ‘free’ in England, but no-one can escape their past except by knowing, acknowledging, and becoming reconciled with others, even with those who had previously kept the past secret as protection – and even with a parent who has died without revealing the truth to his son.

After many scenes in different barbers’ shops – the scene-changes are represented by lighting up their advertising signs, and accompanied by powerful African harmonic group singing and dancing – the play ends on a positive note for the central young man as he realises and comes to understand the truth about his father’s past, and is able now to treat his community’s elders with respect, as an equal.

Photos by Prudence Upton

 Changing moods in the Barber Shop Chronicals

Because of the, for me, overwhelming complexity of the relationships between such a huge range of characters, with so many actors doubling up, I am unable to name who played those final roles.  But in the end, I suggest that this doesn’t really matter, in the sense that the play is about the community as a whole rather than about individual personal tragedies and successes.

In this way, the play has universal significance.  We all, in whatever community we see ourselves belonging to, need to understand, appreciate and come to terms with everyone’s trials, tribulations and attempts at resolutions, however close to or far away from completion during our lifetimes.  The joy expressed so excitingly in the whole group’s singing and dancing which linked the scenes and stimulated such applause at the end, said it all.

Barber Shop Chronicles changing scenes