A barber-shop brotherhood puts the spotlight on masculinity

by Sarah Catherall / 01 February, 2018
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David Webber, left, and Fisayo Akinade. Photo/Marc Brenner

British play Barber Shop Chronicles is hailed as joyous, surprising and moving.

Inua Ellams is chatting backstage at England’s National Theatre while his acclaimed play, Barber Shop Chronicles, is being performed as part of a sellout season.

On its fourth run at the prestigious theatre, the play, which is coming to the New Zealand Festival next month, has been seen by some of Ellams’ heroes – Hugh Jackman, Andrew Garfield, Danny Boyle and the singer Sade, to name a few.

During our Skype interview late on a chilly London night, one of the 12 actors, Kwami Odoom, leaps in front of the screen to say hello. “He’s on a costume change,’’ Ellams smiles.

Though Odoom will be performing in the New Zealand show, Ellams won’t get out to this country to watch the local reaction to his play because his British residency recently expired. Ever since he arrived in London from Nigeria with his parents and sisters 21 years ago, the writer and playwright has had battles over his immigration status.

But the 33-year-old shrugs his shoulders and says he explores any such frustrations through his art. “I just laugh and think about how I can make art out of it.’’

Also renowned for his poetry – he has published four books of poems – Ellams was last in New Zealand three years ago as a guest of the Auckland Writers Festival. “This time, I trust that even though I won’t be physically there with my play, I will be there in an emotional sense.’’

Barber Shop Chronicles came about after Ellams was given a flyer about barbers being taught basic counselling skills. He also reflected on the conversations he heard in barber shops as a teenager. That got him thinking about the role of the barber shop in male culture. He visited several in Africa and London for his research, discovering that men go to barber shops to chat with other men.

Inua Ellams. Photo/Oliver Holms

Set in half a dozen barber shops in Africa and London and featuring a cast of 12 men of African descent, the play, says Ellams, explores the idea that the barber shop is everything from a confession box and political platform to a preacher pulpit and a football pitch. “It’s not unusual for men to spend a lot of time in a barber shop just to talk. They won’t even get a haircut while they are there.”

While barber shops are popping up around New Zealand to cater for hipsters needing their beards trimmed, traditional ones have existed for many generations in Africa, playing an important role in male culture.

But some of the themes he explores in the play are broader than that. Ellams says he didn’t become “a black man” until he arrived in London. “I began to develop a thick skin and to start a conversation defensively. When I arrived from Nigeria, I had no defences like that … I realised that racism invites an aggressiveness to black men. I wanted to discuss African masculinity on stage.”

In a play the Times described as joyous, surprising and moving, Ellams says masculinity is in crisis. Men don’t know what their role is any more. They often earn less than their female partners. “The rules that men traditionally followed no longer exist. Women can do men’s jobs, and men don’t know how to deal with these changes.’’

Struggling to deal with their emotions, “men are also realising that the strong, silent archetype doesn’t exist”.

But if there is a crisis of masculinity, Ellams isn’t suffering from it. He thinks that’s because he grew up in a household with three sisters and was allowed to be in touch with his emotions. “But a lot of men aren’t privy to that.’’

Ellams is also a graphic artist and designer. He has recently won a Liberty Human Rights Award for his latest solo work, An Evening with an Immigrant. The play explores his own history and his relationship with UK immigration.

He said in one interview: “No one leaves their country flippantly. This decision to leave is never taken lightly. There are long-term costs, physically and psychologically. This right to live, to a safe family life, is a human one, and however complicated our communities become, however dark or treacherous a political or social climate, those human rights are worth protecting.”

The Weta Digital season of Barber Shop Chronicles, New Zealand Festival, Wellington, February 24-March 4.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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