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  • Writer's pictureFrances

Barber Shop Chronicles Review | Royal Exchange | Manchester

Moulded by differing opinions shaped by age, culture and language, Barber Shop Chronicles travels across six cities where we witness open and ongoing conversations ranging from relationships, football and the use of the n-word. The community cultivated in these spaces offer an opportunity for black men to express themselves free from a society that has built its rigid image of black masculinity around tough, macho men. From the first scene the show layers common stereotypes depicting the first customer, Wallace (Demmy Ladipo) as a thief who is in need of a haircut but unable to pay. However, familiar themes of black men who are portrayed as threatening and untrustworthy are circumvented within its twelve-person cast as their overlapping stories develop each of the men into much more than a label.

While travelling through London, Accra, Lagos, Kampala, Harare and Johannesburg, Barber Shop Chronicles works to break stigmas around mental health and the archetypes surrounding black men. Within the cities, an honest conversation moves between barbers and clients where the audience is granted a personal seat in their private space. The story breaks the men from a monolithic group, redefining black masculinity by simply showing and acknowledging difference.

The universal stories shared, travel between languages and traditions, positioning the barbers as councillors to their community in which the men can speak uncensored. It’s a beautifully simplistic idea in which the audience are voyeurs, able to empathise with the unguarded and authentic emotions that are rarely depicted on stage or screen.

In a 2016 Ted Talk writer Inua Ellams highlighted the problems surrounding stereotypes and the struggle to break through expected traits of black masculinity. Basing the work on a pilot project that intended to teach barbers counselling skills, Ellams has reimagined the initial reasoning for the project. Statistically black men in the UK are 17 times more likely than a white man to be diagnosed with a mental health issue and the way in which we relate and depict groups and minorities can have a devastating effect. Despite the overwhelming foundations in which the story was built, Barber Shop Chronicles takes the issue and carries its audience with optimistic and joyfully comical scenes. Director Bijan Sheibani and musical director Gareth Fry move the audience from city to city by merging choral singing, dance breaks and a metal globe that hovers in the centre of the stage, lighting up the city we are visiting. Bringing a relaxed atmosphere to the sharply paced show, the cast spin their barber chairs on and off the stage, sitting along the edges of the circular set with the audience.

Bringing a long overdue conversation to the forefront, Barber Shop Chronicles normalises differences by leading discussions of friendship and fatherhood to the Royal Exchange theatre. Including powerful and real depictions of the black experience that help alter audiences’ expectations of an underrepresented group, audiences will instantly feel a part of the community. As soon as you enter the theatre, the cast are running out into the audience to introduce themselves, encouraging you on stage to get your hair cut or cut a rug to Cameo.

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