FOLLICLES, FOLLY, FATHERHOOD
It’s fun down in the Dorfman pit. Under exuberant African barbershop posters from Lagos, Harare, Accra – and London – a cast of barbers and customers-to be josh and wander, dance a few steps and accost the front row. Their territory is a mongrel assembly of garden chairs, sofas, much-used equipment, lanterns and one ancient generator. Overhead a wire globe rotates among chaotic drooping wires and lights. We will live for a hundred and five minutes in this raggedy low-rent masculine world, amid the men of the African diaspora. Seamlessly, at showtime a television on the far side summons them all to an Oh! and a “no!” and a final cheer for the football. And we’re off.
Hopes and fears and preoccupations are filtered through one long day in the barber-shops, which can be as one wise South African clipper says near the end, “beacons”: the heart of communities . Places where troubled male hearts find a truce, and ask themselves and one another about what is it to be a black man? A strong black man with pride and purpose, groping in a world where national father-figures – and real fathers – so often let you down?
Inua Ellams, Nigerian poet and playwright, was last in this space with his BLACK T SHIRT COLLECTION, and sparked sharp mischievous delight with his show AN EVENING WITH AN IMMIGRANT. This is a fuller and more satisfying play, though there are times when you wonder if it will complete itself and become a play indeed, or remain a run of sketches linked only by the rattling-castored, dancing swirl of movement from one country, one group of men to the next. There are sly linking themes – a joke about three men in a bar which appears to be universal, or the young men noting the proverb that “the older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy”. Often it comes back to that theme of fatherhood. There are wonderful one-liners: a few probably lost in patois on some of us, but many direct hits.. There is a furious political debate about whether pidgin is a language which must be preserved, and a knockabout over whether Mugabe is a national hero or a thug.
. But as Bijan Sheibani’s fast-moving direction steers it towards resolution , a wider theme grows: solidified in a superb rant by an old, desperate south African drunk expressing something which – as a former appalled schoolgirl in apartheid south Africa – I have long expected to hear. That is an expression of the stark anger which must rise in poor black South Africans now: rage even at Mandela himself for his benignity and rainbow words, because the white masters were not driven out, not annihilated and exiled, not belittled and humiliated in return. They still hold most of the wealth and power. The calm old barber beside the angry old man talks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to move on. And then through a rapid swirl and rattle of castors, we are back in the London barbershop where a more personal truth and reconciliation has to take place.
And, in a quiet falling coda, an 18 year old comes in after hours for a trim because he is an actor due at an audition . It’s a neat trick, as the play began in Lagos with someone turning up at 6 a.m. desperate for an “aerodynamic” cut for a job interview. This lad, well-spoken and shy and a little camp, is going for a part as “a black man ..a strong black man” . But his own father left when he was six, and he plucks his eyebrows and is an actor doesn’t know what a strong black man is any more, because the Mandelas and Luther Kings are “continent sized’ and he is only a small island…
And so the play, the scruffy barbershop world, in its last phases becomes itself more of a continent than a quirky island. What makes a good man?
box office 020 7452 3000 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.ukto 8 July