Barber Shop Chronicles is a Cut Above
The Grand Theatre is home to Barber Shop Chronicles’ only Canadian stop on its tour and I cannot express how lucky we are. Simply put, Barber Shop Chronicles is brilliant—and the best production that has appeared on The Grand’s stages in years.
It is as close to perfection as you’re going to see. Running at an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, it is perfectly paced, exquisitely edited, and compelling throughout. At first glance, the stage setting threatens to overwhelm the production, but very quickly you realize how seamlessly it is integrated and how integral it is to convey the various settings. And the choreography is immaculate, but I’ll delve into that a bit later.
The production is set in multiple barber shops, alternating between England and English-speaking African nations, such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The barber shops are the “beacons of the community,” and play a role in the communities as a source of discussion, debate, celebration, and sorrow.
By community, we’re focusing exclusively on the black community. And this production is an insightful examination of what it means to be black—and, specifically, a “strong, black male”—in today’s world.
As is the norm in barber shops, the conversation strays into a variety of heavy topics. They are handled honestly and without apology. There are layers of nuance and subtlety in the discussions. Ideas we hold from a Western perspective are held up to scrutiny by the very people experiencing them. An example: though we (as Canadian—and predominantly white—society) hold to the idea that Robert Mugabe in unabashedly evil and Nelson Mandela is his polar opposite, Barber Shop Chronicles expertly presents a different perspective. For black men looking to throw off the shackles of colonialism, does the cathartic violence offered by the Mugabe regime provide better closure than the more measured, diplomatic approach espoused by Mandela?
Answers that we once viewed clearly are suddenly clouded when viewed through the lens of those experiencing them first-hand.
Barber Shop Chronicles is filled with joy and laughter, but it is by no means a light play. Topics range from parenting and corporal punishment, to discussions of race and culture, to the role that the “N”-word plays—or should play—in modern society, to the value of truth and reconciliation efforts, and the ongoing struggle of homosexual acceptance in certain countries.
Woven throughout the production is wonderful musicality and movement. Though the set remains largely the same peripherally, the chairs and tables are moved around through intricately choreographed routines performed by the actors, executed to a combination of traditional African song and more modern, Western music.
There is a wonderfully beautiful moment where, as two characters are talking main stage, there is another actor off to the side, playing a likembe almost as ambient noise. It is incredibly poetic and a perfect example of the care and integration of culture throughout this play.
I’m hesitant to single out any particular actor, because this piece is truly one that is representative of the sum of its parts. The actors effortlessly change from character to character, location to location, slipping in and out of accents, and embracing physical changes. Often we say that shows are greater than the sum of their parts. This is not the case with Barber Shop Chronicles. Each part is integral—and equal—to its sum. There are no deficiencies and each actor is challenged—and rises to that challenge—of living up to the incredible script and production.
That said, Anthony Ofoegbu is wonderfully nuanced in his role as Emmanuel, one of the owners of the UK-based barber shop. He plays wonderfully off Elliot Edusah, who as Samuel—an employee of the barber shop and son of one of its original three owners (the “Three Kings”)—is filled with a rage that seethes just below the surface until it’s confronted, head-on, by a long-hidden truth.
With so many interwoven stories and seemingly random “asides” through discussion, it would be easy for a show to get derailed by lesser playwrights and directors. In Barber Shop‘s case, the play takes its time getting to where it needs to go. And, by the end, there’s a resolution of plot lines that feels natural.
Pull up a chair and allow yourself to be immersed in the Barber Shop Chronicles. It’s an experience that’s a cut above and one that will be remembered for years to come.