Art is never more valuable then when it takes you behind closed doors into a subculture you’ve never experienced. There are plenty of hair braiding establishments here in Brooklyn, but I’ve never been in one, and I suspect the ladies who work in them would look askance at a middle-aged white dude with little material to beautify atop his head. For 90 delightful (and troubling, and thought-provoking) minutes playwright Jocelyn Bioh, of Ghanaian-American descent, takes us into Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, a fictional establishment in Harlem, and for the entirety of the performance the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre becomes the space, a living, breathing entity. (Much the same thing happened with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s splendid Tony-winning revival of August Wilson’s cabstand-set Jitney a few seasons back.)
Long before Jaja, the proprietor of the salon, enters the scene we meet Marie (Dominique Thorne), her American-born daughter. She aspires to the Ivy League and a writing career but today, like every day, she’s overseeing the shop. It’s summer, the temperature’s about to hit 100, and “queen” Bea (Zenzi Williams), the most senior of Jaja’s staff, is in rare form, sulking over a lack of customers and berating temporary stylist Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) for breaking the rules and stealing some of her regulars. For Bea and the other workers, mostly African immigrants, gossip is currency, and in that sense anyway everyone’s making bank. When Marie is out of earshot (and sometimes when she’s right there) Bea and the peacemaking Aminata (Nana Mensah) trade barbs and fret about Jaja, who’s to enter a green card marriage with a prosperous local businessman that afternoon. The ogre-ish Bea, we learn, put what money she had into obtaining citizenship as Jaja plowed her savings into buying the shop, and harbors some resentment that she’s not an entrepreneur, too. But her worries are genuine–it’s 2019, Trump is in office, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are underfoot, adding an ominous backbeat to the prevailing comedy.
The daily routine is beautifully delineated by Bioh, director Whitney White, and an amazing cast, who in the space of a few lines can go from gutbusting comedy to heartbreak. Spending most of her time at her chair is the sweet-natured Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), who spends the entire day attending to Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), who has a particularly demanding tonsorial assignment. It’s Jennifer’s first time at the salon, and we observe its rituals–payment is privately agreed upon outside, samples are chosen, and looks discussed. (The other “queen bee,” Beyoncé, is an evergreen.) Miriam and Jennifer bond over their shared stories of struggle, the latter over her being stuck at the bottom rungs of her editorial gig, and the former over how she came from Africa. It’s strong, tender writing to be sure but all the while I was agog at how Adebumola was working Christopher’s hair; the blisters on her hands seem the real deal. It’s so fascinating to see a process, both mundane and mysterious, come alive onstage.
All the actors have star turns and diva moments, and mention must be made of Kalyne Coleman and Michael Oloyede, the lone male castmember, who slip in and out of various supporting parts. Then there’s Somi Kakoma, as the late-arriving Jaja. The actress and singer tears up the stage in a gaudy wedding dress, convinced that she’s finally made good with her soon-to-be-husband. But Jaja incarnates the dilemma of immigrants everywhere in our begrudgingly welcoming society. In the salon they can be as brash and colorful as they want but outside its safe confines, with the air-conditioning sort of humming, music playing, and comforting Nollywood videos on the TV they’re forced to be invisible. Jaja is taking a risk, and the last, devastating movement shows how her choices rebound on Marie.
Bioh’s fine material is given shape and texture and specificity of place by a crack design team: David Zinn (oh, that set, padlocked at the start and resplendently open for the bulk of the show), Jiyoun Chang (lighting), Justin Ellington (composer and sound design), Stefania Bulbarella (video designer) and Nikiya Mathis (give it up, please, for hair and wig design). Jaja’s African Hair Braiding: I laughed, I cried, I wanted hair like big pink poodle tails cascading to my waist.