The Barber Shop Chronicles is a revolutionary piece of theatre. After two sell-out runs at The National Theatre and a world tour, it’s finally coming to the regions. I spoke to Anthony Ofoegbu about his time in Barber Shop Chronicles and bringing it to Birmingham this September.
“It is set in six different places – Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Peckham. It revolves around a football match they are watching in these various places on the same day, “ Anthony said. “We see various links through the Barber Shops through their relationships. For example someone may be sitting in a Barber Shop in Zimbabwe and have a father in London.
“So there is a lot of interrelationships going on, especially with the clients that come in and use the Barber Shop. There are multiple characters, I think with the twelve actors we play about 33 characters. So you get quite a slice of life from each perspective. That love, life, loss and relationships with friends and family is very emotional, strong, political, insightful. There are a lot of cross-cultural discoveries.
“The way Inua Ellams has written the story is quite extraordinary really. He started writing a piece about Barber Shops in London and then took it to these five African countries that are British colonised. He recorded people in these Barber Shops and what you see is a collation of the real stories,” Anthony explained.
“The way he has woven these stories into this piece we call the Barber Shop Chronicles is quite amazing. They are true stories which is why I think they have such an impact. You can sense the emotion no matter where you are from and that’s what I think is the beauty of the piece. No matter where we are from, we are all familiar with the natural law of emotion. We see it through various eyes and in this instance, various Afro-Caribbean eyes.”
With sharp dialogue and fascinating conversation, it’s an eye-opening piece of theatre. “Maybe people don’t know that a lot of black people have to filter their existence on the street in their every day lives. They go into a Barber Shop and it’s like a salon for women, you open up a confession box,” Anthony said.
“You feel somehow you can talk to your barber. So many actors in the show have this relationship with their barber and they see them as a family member. It is the alternative church, it is the alternative confession box. It’s an insightful, information gathering space where you are free to express.”
The playwright Inua was trying to get a grant for barbers to become mentors because they realised the importance of what people were saying and it needed some sort of helpful response. A lot of black mental health is a big issue amongst the Afro-Caribbean community. “Now that mental health seems to be in the air, now that we are addressing it wholeheartedly. It is a big issue and big topic so it is good that we can see what’s being done,” he explained.
What is refreshing about this show is it is shining a light on male mental health – something that has a huge stigma attached to it. “Men can really struggle to open up, we don’t say anything. Here in this environment you get to hear it. My sister wonderfully put it, she said you get to see the vulnerability of men which is rare from that perspective,” said Anthony.
“The play isn’t just at entertainment level, I call it ‘edutainment’, it is very educating especially in this climate. We need to break down these barriers and open up the conversation.”
“It is love, life and loss from an African perspective but for everybody.”
The reaction from the show has been astounding, which is why it is a play going from strength to strength. Anthony explained how overwhelmed he has felt talking to audience members after the show. “We get bombarded,” he said. “People are constantly saying “I never knew this, thank you so much” and I am a much better person for it.
“If the audience is predominantly white they might not understand the cultural humour. But if it is mixed audience they will start to understand from those who can understand the humour, so they can invest in it more and come away a lot wiser. Then other Afro-Caribbeans get a sense of belonging and inclusion rather than exclusion. It really is a very powerful medium and what Inua has done has been a very powerful piece of work in current times.”
What makes the piece accessible is the dynamic opening. Set inside the barber shop, it has an interactive pre-show with a DJ playing where audience can come on stage and experience the atmosphere. “People come up and have a dance, you’re allowed to lose your inhibitions and let your hair down,” Anthony explained. “The stories are told with music of that area, like Ugandan, Nigerian, they all have different flavours of tempos and beats. The music and the beats are the rhythm of our heart and it makes us feel good. I think it it is uplifting, come and see for yourself, prove me wrong.
“This is escapism but purposeful escapism because in a way you are escaping to a moment of freedom where you can reflect back on yourself,” Anthony said. “It is informative, insightful, it will touch you and you will relate to it no matter who you are or where you are from. It cuts across the cultural divide.
“I hope this show gives people a reminder of who they are, because that is something that is taken away from us on a daily basis. The good side of us, the very good side of us, the emotive side of us, the giving side of us, it is all so important.
“This show needs a lot of energy and it is lovely to combine that energy offstage and onstage from the actors to the audience members. There is a bonding and you come away feeling as fulfilled as the audience that have come to see it, we can’t do it without them and that is what makes it wonderful. It is great unification, it is a party.”
Barber Shop Chronicles opens at Birmingham Rep on The 26 Sept, tickets and information can be found on their website.