Barber Shop Chronicles: Acclaimed theatre production coming to Wellington
For six weeks, British-Nigerian award-winning poet and playwright Inua Ellams sat in six different barbershops in six different cities on the African continent, listening to the yarns spun of many different men.
As the barber draped the cape over the men and took out his razor, tales of families, politics, confessions, preacher speech and sports would fill the salon.
It was a different kind of "locker talk", Ellams says, and the men weren't necessarily there for a hair cut or shave.
Ellams sat listening and recording this normal, everyday event where African men, as they have for generations, gathered and spoke unguarded. With his observations, Ellams created Barber Shop Chronicles, a highly-acclaimed theatre production coming to Wellington as part of the 2018 editon of the New Zealand Festival in February.
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"What the Barber Shop Chronicles is really about is men grappling with the changing world around them, the changing nature of masculinity, the mental well-being implications of that and what they see of black masculinity in everything from Nelson Mandela to contemporary representations in hip-hop," he explains.
"It is definitely engaged strongly with an African identity. So, moreover, it's about masculinity but, for the guys, I think coming to the play and just hearing these conversations might be interesting. For the girls, might be interesting hear what guys talk about."
Ellams was born in Nigeria and grew up in the UK. The writer, who this past week was shortlisted for Liberty's 2017 Human Rights Awards for his former show An Evening With an Immigrant, became curious about the kinds of conversations he was overhearing in barbershops across London as a teenager.
He sensed that the ostensibly "ridiculous conversations" he was witnessing were somehow connected with a way of socialising he thought he had left behind long ago in Nigeria.
After researching for six weeks in 2013, Ellams brought the show to the stage this year – to rave reviews.
Set in barbershops traversing Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London, the play reveals that those funny, sometimes ridiculous conversations are certainly still being had – not in the local pub at night, but every day, in the places where men go to get their hair cut.
"There's a lot of joy and a lot of humour that comes across in the story and that was because of the characters I met and sometimes the ridiculous points of views they would have, or things that would lead them to those points of view," he says.
"There was always space or humour in the research process. There was always joy."
Tying all of the barbers and their clients together was their love of football.
"Regardless of how rich and how fancy it was, or how poor, there was an investment in the British Premiership and the Africa Cup of Nations," he says.
The response has been incredible so far. After finishing a sell-out season in July, London's National Theatre Company has already requested its return in December.
The Guardian rated it four out of five stars, calling it an "invigorating and richly enjoyable drama", while The Independent gave it five out of five stars and said it was "an ambitious piece and so life-affirmingly realised".
"None of us [expected it]," Ellams says.
"The actors were surprised, the director, the staff – we sort of were shocked by it.
"We just didn't expect it. But whenever you write a play about a collaboration, you know what you bring to it – the director brings something and the actors bring something to it.
"They're all sort of spices and you're not sure whether you have the right flavour and we somehow did. So no, I didn't expect that at all."
For someone so young that has achieved so much, finding out what Ellams does for fun has become "an increasingly poignant question".
"I think I've lost the ways I used to have fun and I'm in the process of trying to rediscover them," the almost 33-year-old says.
"They came from walking, exploring cities on my own, they came from writing and reading and I'm just going to go back to that. I play basketball when I can.
"I'm a bit of a workaholic, I'm a bit of an old man."
The Weta Digital Season of Barber Shop Chronicles runs from February 24 to March 4, 2018 at TSB Bank Arena. Tickets and prices are available at festival.co.nz