For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops, sometimes to have haircuts, sometimes just to listen, more often to set the world to rights.
Writer Inua Ellams listened in to the banter of this uniquely masculine environment and created a play which has enjoyed two sell-out runs at the National Theatre and a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a heart-warming, funny and insightful play that leaps from barber’s in Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra over the course of a single day.
Now a new production is on a UK tour which comes to the Crucible in Sheffield next week.
“It’s an exhilarating play which identifies various concerns black men have in common,” says Emmanuel Ighodaro, one of a cast of 12.
“The conversations, based on recordings Inua Ellams made around the world, are broad in scope. You have father and son relationships, the right and wrong way to bring up children. It’s different in African countries. Many of the actors have talked about their experience where parents were not afraid to give us slap.
“My parents are from Benin in Nigeria so I have an identity with the Nigerian side of the story. I also play a South African and you have to be careful when you play a character with an accent that’s not yours,” he points out.
The actor whose natural voice has a strong Salford tinge says he nevertheless had to guard against the Nigerian seeping in and needed to get it right because otherwise it would be spotted by anyone in the audience with South African connections.
“I went on YouTube and studied how South African people talk. Hazel Holder, our dialect coach was able to steer us in the right direction. Apart from me from Manchester most of the cast are London-based of Nigerian heritage and then we have one actor from Zimbabwe. He was helpful too as there are various similarities with the South African accent.
“There’s conversation about Mandela. Was he a revolutionary or someone who failed South Africa?
“My character is a father who has lost touch with his family through alcohol and has gone downhill. He is drifting around trying to find his way in the world and has an enmity building up and doesn’t know who he is.
“He feels South Africa has gone over to the whites and he epitomises the pain and anger that is still felt in South Africa.
“He is angry with Mandela who he thinks was like his father who he hated. He identifies with Winnie Mandela who he thinks was more radical.
“All my characters are completely different. Tokumbo the Nigerian barber is always trying to better his business. He is proud and strong-willed and sees himself as an entrepreneur.”
His third character is Paul, a Ugandan who is effeminate and elegant and it is implied he is gay without it ever being said. The other characters talk about the issues of being gay in Uganda around him.
“The things Paul himself talks about make people uncomfortable like racism and the oppression. You can hear a pin drop in those moments.
“One moment the show is joyous and exhilarating with singing and dancing and fun and then it cuts to weightier scenes and heavier issues. I think that’s going to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
“What’s nice about theatre – and I have mainly dabbled in TV so this is my first stage appearance for 10 years – is it’s all about the physical way of getting into character.
“All of you is exposed. It’s a great challenge to make each one individual in the way you move. It’s not just about accent but physicality.”.
Barbershop Chronicles is a very different piece of drama from the norm.
“Most of the actors are on stage all the time which is completely different from when I have done theatre before when you come off and on,” says Ighodaro.
“I love the ensemble work in the play. Everyone is in the scene even if you are not playing a character you are observing on the sidelines. You are waiting in line and always have an eye on what is happening.”
And the music and dance he referred to? “Basically what we do are scene changes which are complicated. There’s a lot of acapella and four-part harmony singing, with a lot of call and response. The songs punctuate the show and set up the changes in location.”
Does the actor have his own barbershop memories? “I used to go to a barber’s in Moss Side where there was a lot of trouble in the area. But where I was from, Salford and Cheetham Hill, I couldn’t find a black barber’s.”
Born in Manchester, he went to train at Bristol Old Vic and lived there for 10 years before moving up to London but is now back in Manchester.
He was particularly pleased to re-connect with the city by appearing in a couple of series of Shameless.
Barbershop Chronicles opens at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, on Wednesday, May 22,and continues until June 1.