Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles—a smash in the UK—has been on an American tour since October and has just settled into a month-long run at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, where it will run through Jan 5.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles is set in six different barber shops between London and Africa. Under a chaotic tangle of telephone wires and a giant Universal Studios-like globe suspended from the ceiling with a disco ball in its center (??)—Rae Smith is the designer—different men in different countries are having the same kinds of conversations: fatherhood, football, masculinity, homophobia, and the N word. Even in Ellams’ overly scripted play, the men seem to be approaching various kinds of truths, even if it isn’t always clear to the audience what they’re talking… and talking… and talking about.
Even if the ending of the play feels too pat, Barber Shop Chronicles becomes something of a stunner in its final 20 minutes. Sadly, 20 minutes does not a play make and the rest of the play is not only an assault on our patience but also on our will to extract any kind of sense. And, for what it’s worth, I’m usually someone who goes weak in the knees for plays in which nothing..seems…to…happen.
There are some admirable performances, though, chief among them Tuwaine Barrett, who at one point delivers a master class in comedy, and Elliot Edusah, who under better circumstances may very well be the heart of the play.
But there is also an alienating chaos to the production that doesn’t serve it well. Rather than be invited into their world, I felt stuck on the outside of it, not only because I had no idea what they were talking about most of the time, but because the cast seemed to be having a grand old time regardless. (Emblematic of this is Patrice Naiambana’s bizarrely over-the-top performance, which gave his scenes a weird self-indulgence).
At the end of each haircut, a mirror is held up so that the guy in the chair can get a good look at his fresh cut. But even if the guys on stage were able to see themselves reflected perfectly, our own reflections remain fuzzy and just out of view, lost under a tangle of telephone wires and noise.
BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES.THROUGH 1.5 AT AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATRE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.