BLOG 02/01/18: THE BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES
"Britain as a whole still seems weirdly uncurious about Africa, still somehow willing to lump 1.2 billion people together as inhabitants of the ‘Dark Continent'"
Until surprisingly recently, one of the most persistent misconceptions one encountered in the classroom was that Africa was a country. This myth was every bit as ubiquitous as, say, the equally entrenched belief that nobody’d
figured out the world was round until Columbus sailed the ocean blue and failed to tumble off the planet’s edge into counterfactual nothingness. Or there’s the still unshakeable conviction that adjectives are ‘describing words’—though why the adjectives should be deemed more important for describing things than the adverbs or the verbs or the nouns is a mystery nobody’s ever quite able to explain.
Anyway, a vast continent of more than 50 nation states and 1,500-plus languages seemed to have shrunk in the average British child’s imagination to just one single faraway country called Africa: a place of steamy jungles and sun-bleached savannah, populated by lions and elephants, by grass-skirted dancers and by Tarzan and the Apes, and of course by those starving children who’d be grateful for whatever cauliflower and liver had been left on the side of the dinner plate.
And though the school kids of today’s multicultural Britain must, by now, have finally twigged that there are many different African nations populated by many different races, religions and ethnicities, Britain as a whole still seems weirdly uncurious about Africa, still somehow willing to lump 1.2 billion people together as inhabitants of the ‘Dark Continent’.
Perhaps talk of a ‘black community’ encourages this homogenising tendency, as if skin colour and racial prejudice define people more strongly than their own cultural loyalties, allegiances and traditions. Perhaps the progressive ideals of Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness may also, perversely, play a part in shaping this view—as does the continent’s shared history of slavery, colonialism and neoliberal exploitation.
Inua Ellams’ exuberant play, The Barber Shop Chronicles, reminds us of the rich diversity of Africa, weaving together scenes from Accra, Lagos, Johannesburg and Harare, and then taking in the African diaspora by visiting a hairdresser’s in Peckham. In doing so, we do much more than meet different Africans of different generations living in different cities in different nations: we’re also subtly reminded that a country like Nigeria contains Ibo, Yoruba, Benin and Hausa, and is the home of 500 different languages and several hundred different tribes.
The men who visit Ellams’ barber shops are divided by nationality and ethnicity, politics and religion, temperament and age, and they banter and they argue, they take umbrage and they speechify—debating everything from changing attitudes towards filial discipline and homosexuality to the rival political legacies of Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela—but we are also constantly reminded of what unites them together: their shared fascination with hair and with football. For though, the barber shops may be thousands of miles apart from one another, all are equally focused on the outcome of the Champions’ League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona.
Ellams’ barber shops are hives of gossip and arenas for impassioned political debate, social clubs where friends and rivals josh with one another, and people’s parliaments where the disastrous effects of colonial exploitation and postcolonial corruption and extortion can be thrashed out. The men discuss the political significance of speaking pidgin and they discuss land seizures in Zimbabwe and the aftermath of Apartheid; they swap notes about sex and women and fatherhood, and they chat about music and booze and drugs; they make confessions about dark family secrets and they wind one another up and put one another down with jokes and quips and asides. Anything and everything can be talked about in the shared space of the barber shop: it provides a public sphere equivalent to the 18th-century coffeehouses and salons so beloved of Habermas.
'Anything and everything can be talked about in the shared space of the barber shop: it provides a public sphere equivalent to the 18th-century coffeehouses and salons so beloved of Habermas'
This exhilarating production also provides a masterclass in how to use a stage and work an audience. From the first moment we stepped inside the Dorfman, we were welcomed into the inclusive world of the barber shop. Members of the audience were invited on stage to have their hair trimmed and to pose to have their pictures taken with mobile phones. The actors fist-bumped teenagers and played pea-knuckle with smiling kids; hugged their black-slapping friends and well-wishers; flirted amicably with giggling girls and jovial women; and swayed to the beats played by an onstage DJ. Later on, they sang lush African harmonies, danced with their towels and span the barbers' chairs. The audience loved it: black or white, young or old, male or female, British or African, we all had a blast together, enjoying the multifarious tales of men in barber shops, waiting to watch the big match on telly.
All of this brings me back to my starting-point: Britain was once the ruler of a vast world empire; it clings to a foreign policy that’s sent our troops, ever more disastrously, to the furthest corners of the globe; and our towns and cities have morphed into multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith cosmopolises; yet we still seem fixated on our own little island, on our European neighbours, and on big, brash, loud-mouthed America. The time has long since come for us to listen to other voices. The Barber Shop Chronicles reminds us that those voices can be a joy to hear.