In Conversation with Inua Ellams
A Word from the Writer of Barber Shop Chronicles
A key performance in Stanford Live’s upcoming season upholding universal human dignity—rooted in the common experiences of life, love, and loss—is Barber Shop Chronicles, a play by UK-based Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams that transcends identities, borders, and creeds. Depicting the barbershop, a space where everyday tasks of life’s upkeep give way to profound community bonds, Ellams’ play offers a supple view of human continuity across the cultural complexities of the African continent and diaspora. Before the premiere, he shared a little about his purpose in creating this work for the stage.
What inspired you to write this play?
Years ago I learned of a charity that was trying to train barbers in the very basics of counseling, and I never realized how intimate the conversations could get between barbers and clients. Initially I wanted to be voyeuristic and create poems. Just to record the conversations and try and write poems about the interactions between these men. No one would fund me to do this, but the idea stayed with me. The idea of the poems turned to conversations, to scenes, to settings, to drama, to politics, to anthropology, to history, to the contemporary—to everything really. I wanted to capture the fragility of black men in their own setting.
How did you approach the piece?
I went to London, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana. I met individuals, transcribed and recorded, mixed things together, created whole new characters, scrapped some, and created this play that is 40 percent verbatim, 60 percent invented. It was a lot of work drawing strands together and churning. I’ve tried to create that sense of camaraderie and a safe space for the men in the play to be themselves.
What is the significance of the different places in the play? The UK, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana?
Simply because they’re Anglophone Africa rather than Francophone Africa—I wanted to create a diasporas conversation between black African men in the UK and black African men on the continent. And those were the places I had the most friends and ins into barbershops.
What do you want people to take away from the piece?
Just how vast, complex, and nuanced the continent is. The very many types of black men that exist. The stereotypes created for us, for the actors perfumed on television, all of them lack in grace and specificity and are tired and dated. It is just so multilayered, multifaceted, a plethora of identities that we don’t have represented in the UK, and I wanted to share that. To show the kaleidoscopic nature of masculinity on the continent and here. And we know that black men know that, but I don’t think that level of precision is out there in the public. Maybe the Caribbean men have more light shown on the many facets of the island, but I don’t think there are that many of African men.
—Courtesy of the National Theatre, 2017
Related Event: Nov 8–10
Roble Studio Theater
Barber Shop Chronicles