On a bright winter afternoon, barber Isaac Genty cuts his son’s hair at Headlines, a black owned barbershop in Cambridge. He’s telling a story about his father, who was a barber for more than 50 years. Genty’s son, sitting patiently in the chair as his father gives him a lineup, says he will be the third generation of men in their family to pursue a career as a barber.
Listening in is Inua Ellams, the playwright of “Barber Shop Chronicles,” now playing at the American Repertory Theater. This is the Nigerian playwright’s first time in an American barbershop but over the last few years, Ellams has visited a multitude of barbershops in several African countries and the United Kingdom, analyzing how men interact with each other.
“Barbershops are naturally theatrical places,” Ellams says as he watches the men in Headlines talk. “They just open up to conversation — for men to hold court and talk at length about the most ridiculous, crazy stories.”
Ellams feels that spaces like Headlines are integral to the formation of healthy relationships between men. He believes barbershops stand as a place where men can display vulnerability and seek advice. “There aren’t many other safe spaces where men, specifically black men, can gather in large numbers without criticisms or the critical eye,” Ellams pointed out.
The idea for “Barber Shop Chronicles” began to bloom a decade ago, after Ellams saw an advertisement in London, promoting a program training barbers in counseling. “I was surprised that conversations and barbershops could get so intimate that clients could be safe [discussing] potential mental health problems,” Ellams says.
The playwright traveled to several African countries and the United Kingdom to learn more about the singular relationships between barbers and clients, armed with only a voice recorder to capture conversations and experiences. What he found was that despite differences in culture and language, all of the barbershops had one thing in common: The men were speaking open and honestly about their realities.
“Barber Shop Chronicles” draws from these recorded conversations and weaves together the interconnecting stories of 30 black men living in various African countries and the United Kingdom.
Showing these men in the barbershop, where they are vulnerable and open with each other, highlights the nuances of black masculinity, which is riddled with many dangerous stereotypes. “The play sort of goes [on] to accept [the existence of] all of those stereotypes,” Ellams says. “And then deconstructs them and demystifies them in the most traditional and simple of ways, which is by just seeing these men on stage, talking, laughing and eating.”