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Q&A: 'Barber Shop Chronicles' writer Inua Ellams

PART OF THE EXPERIENCE: David Webber and Fisayo Akinade on stage in Barber Shop Chronicles (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

FOR GENERATIONS, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world as well as get their hair cut.

Inua Ellams’ dynamic new play journeys from a barber shop in London, to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. These are places where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always telling.

The Voice caught-up with Ellams, an international touring poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer ahead of the opening of Barber Shop Chronicles to talk about the exciting new production.

Q: How would you describe Barber Shop Chronicles?

A: Barber Shop Chronicles is a web of a play. It is set in seven different barber shops in London, Johannesburg, Soweto, Harare, Lagos, Accra and Kampala. It follows a global network of clients and barbers who know each other, but do not know they know each other across one day. It’s about the intermingling of characters, their woes, their joys, their loves, their happiness, their problems and how they navigate the spaces they find themselves in.

PASSIONATE: Inua Ellams believes in the social aspect of barber shops

Q: When did you come up with the idea for this show?

A: I came up with the idea for the show in 2009. It began as an idea for a poetry project set in barber shops. Then, two or three years later, it grew into an idea for a show.

Q: Why do you think people are so open and talkative when they’re having their hair cut?

A: I don’t think it happens in all barber shops – this is the case in African and Caribbean barbers shops. For me, the reason is two-fold. Firstly, it is because of the openness of conversations there. Men feel free to speak about things that cross their minds in politically incorrect and problematic ways – and something comes up that a listener feels is irresponsible and/or ridiculous to say, the view is challenged. It’s entirely safe to do so in those spaces. The other reason is because of the physical form one takes to when having a haircut. You’re sat in a barber’s chair, wrapped in a barber’s cloth, cocooned in it, almost returned to your earliest self. You are like a baby wrapped in cloth in its mother’s arms, while an older person behind you is tending to you, beautifying you, massaging your face, trimming you, discussing your specific facial features and looking intently at you. It is holy and precious. Because of the nature of that interaction, how close and safe it has to be to function, people talk and it is one way to break the pseudo macho masculinity, which might otherwise dominate such a space.

One way to break the silence of being so close to another man (who isn’t a family member) is to talk your way out of the awkwardness. What tends to happen is the awkwardness gives way to something more authentic and personal.

Q: What has been your favourite barber shop experience?

A: That would probably be about the man I met in Kenya. His name was Ian. He asked me who discovered Mount Kenya and I said I didn’t know. He told me that Kenyan history books will tell you it’s Johann Krapf, but asked how it would have been possible for a European explorer to have ‘discovered’ a mountain his ancestors had been grazing cattle on for centuries. That simple conversation blew the play wide open for me because I realised education on the continent and the legacy of colonisation – and the fact we were still speaking English -
permeated everything. It upended and eroded history, our history. That experience was mind boggling in its utter simplicity.

Q: Who inspires you to create?

A: I don’t think it’s a 'who'. I think it’s a what, a where and a time. Everything that I write tends to have political ramifications. For me that is linked to into how storytellers, griots, worked in ancient and pre-colonial Africa – and also how they continue to work, though the practice has dwindled. The griots were also historians. They used to bend stories they told to make them more contemporary, more urgent.

BROTHERHOOD: Characters share a moment

That sense of creating work that speaks to the times in which we live is really the way that I view the possibility and the importance of art. Those are the things that inspire me. The places I find myself in, what is happening in society, what fresh hells the government might be unleashing on its people. But above all those things, beauty really inspires me. I’m always trying to create something beautiful. Even the ugliest of things, I’m just trying to reform it in a way that makes it more palatable and more digestible. Humans are interesting creatures – we sometimes safeguard our sanity for self-preservation by ignoring things we cannot handle. The human simply cannot deal with some things – like genocide and experiences of suffering – holding and feeling all that pain and loss is beyond most of us. It is emotionally overwhelming, mentally taxing and incredibly triggering. One of the ways artists work is to go through that journey to find ways to contain it, to find a simpler truth beneath the numbers and to be able to write stories that bring those truths closer, so those that think it is too big to consider, who might be overwhelmed or lost, are given signposts and maps to find their way through. The achievement of that is a kind of beauty. To take an entire thorny forest and turn it into something you can hold in your hand. That’s what I mean by creating beautiful things – and that attempt towards creation, drives me a lot. There’s something John Keats says: ‘Truth is beauty and beauty is truth, that’s all you know and all you need to know.’ That inspires me all the time.

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