[Mark Brenner Photography]
“The older a man get, the faster he can run as a boy”.
‘One day. Six cities. A thousand stories.’ From a barber shop in Peckham, to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, Barber Shop Chronicles is a journey through many cultures, traditions, and arguments. Generations of barbers, and, generations of men.
At the heart of Barber Shop Chronicles is an unresolved family feud: Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) has run this barber shop for the last three years. Its original owner, and friend of Emmanuel, is serving out a sentence for embezzlement from the business. His friend’s son, Samuel (Fisayo Akinade), has never had this situation explained to him in full, and so has spent the last three years believing that Emmanuel has stolen the business out of greed, and abandoned his father.
For a production like this, there is no contest between live and recorded: the set is alive, the movement between country and time period is a choreography all on its own. Its soundscape, flitting from acapella to rap, afrobeat to chants. Much like the play itself, the music speaks to societal progress of the home countries, its past, and its future – Mandela was a hero, a criminal, Winnie should have led South Africa – as well as a generational divide and what unites them – we had better music, the kids don’t know what real music is.
Last October, I was on a Lyceum theatre tour as part of an induction for the Christmas show we were rehearsing. Barber Shop Chronicles were in their last week of their run, and as we stood in among the set, I had an epiphany: I’ve seen this show before. Almost six years ago, mid-masters, and part of Òran Mór’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season. An embryonic, maybe 45 minute version of what it was to eventually become.
While already present in the early draft that I was lucky enough to see, what struck what me the hardest in seeing it now was the message I walked away with. In 2014, I remember there being a greater emphasis on the importance of heritage, keeping the culture alive, and the irritation of the older first/second generation adults on how uninterested the younger second/third generation were in where they came from. In 2020, it was the pain carried by each generation of the failures of their fathers.
“Your father. He eh, spoke with his hands, eh.” / “Yes. But it was the wrong kind of language.”
The barber shop symoblises freedom, a place where any and all conversation is allowed, and where life happens, unfiltered. In this case, too, it is a male space. For all the jokes and bravado, there is an evident fragility of each character across the cities, whether it is age, attitude or, as we soon discover, the emotional damage they are burdened with.
Of all the stories that are told, every one of them stumbles over the same problem of a problematic father. Whether he was physically abusive, neglectful, or absent altogether, each character tries to downplay the damage, or ultimately drowns within it. The most striking example of this is a scene towards the end of the play, where Simphiwe (Patrice Naiambana) falls apart over the loss of everything he has.
He was not a good father because his own left him when he was young. Whether it was to take the pain of the neglect away, or the socio-economical turmoil that came with the South African apartheid revolution, Simphiwe took to drink. And now, his own son has abandoned him as he pursues an education elsewhere. Within his scatterbrained venting, he isn’t so much the rambling drunk, but a broken man juggling too many unresolved traumas. As much as his barber tries to navigate his words, he doesn’t understand the cause. Frustrated, Simphiwe lets out an anguished cry, pain within every syllable:
“You are not listening! He never said sorry”.
Unanswered questions, unresolved fights – there is torture in not knowing. Ellams has crafted an overwhelming theme of needing, and failing, to heal in this play. In many ways, it ends with the hope for resolution. It’s just a question of how many more generations it will take.