London-based playwright and poet Inua Ellams' acclaimed play "Barber Shop Chronicles," set against the backdrop of barbershop conversations in cities across Africa and London, is coming to the U.S. for the first time with a stop at Seattle's Moore Theatre from Nov. 1-3.
Masculinity. Vulnerability. Belonging. These are some of the themes London-based poet, playwright, graphic artist and performer Inua Ellams explores in his cross-cultural, cross-continental creative works. Born in Nigeria in 1984, Ellams’ childhood experience as an immigrant in London shaped his artistic evolution and identity.
Ellams’ acclaimed play, “Barber Shop Chronicles,” set against the backdrop of barbershop conversations in cities across Africa and London, is coming to the U.S. for the first time with a stop at Seattle’s Moore Theatre from Nov. 1-3. We spoke with Ellams from London about his work; edited excerpts follow.
You have written a lot about your experience as an immigrant to Britain. How has your feeling of place and belonging evolved or changed? How have conditions changed?
I spent the longest part of my life assuming that I didn’t belong anywhere and I would never really belong anywhere. Maybe to a certain extent I still believe that I don’t. I was given “indefinite leave to remain” (permanent residency) this year, but also in the year leading up to that, Brexit happened, in which Britain voted to extricate itself from the rest of the European Union, and alongside that was a rise in racism and racist attacks across the United Kingdom.
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So I feel like I have been allowed finally to belong to the U.K. and my immigrant days are over, but these are the times it is more volatile to be an immigrant, where people are being attacked in the streets of the capital and in the smaller, countryside towns and villages. … In Germany, for instance, in places like Denmark, places like Paris, places like France, even in the U.S. as well, there is this rise of nativism, of nationalism, of racism, and the lines have been drawn, sometimes through households, across race.
How did the “Barber Shop” story come about?
It came about years ago when a girl I was in a relationship with told me about a government project to teach barbers about the very basics of counseling and about how to offer advice and mental-health help to their clients in the barbershop. … I realized the more time I spent in barbershops, that it was quite a rich hotbed of conversation, of drama, because of the men that I met who held court, and told jokes, and told stories. The endless potential for circumstance and happenstance and coincidence just unfolded in the most natural way. And that’s where the idea came from. But in typical Nigerian fashion, I didn’t just want to stay true to one barbershop, I wanted to go bigger, so I just went traveling through the continent by myself … and traveled to barbershops and listened to conversations and I returned with a bunch of material.
What would you say “Barber Shop Chronicles” is about?
I would say it’s about cross-generational conversations about African masculinity and how that is compromised by the West … it’s about all those things but it’s about dudes talking in shops and it’s about men trying to find a safe space to be vulnerable. … It’s very funny, it’s very vibrant, it’s very alive, but it changes on a hatpin. It just turns and becomes really profoundly moving and questioning and searching. In a nutshell I would say it’s about African men trying to figure out what it means to be themselves.
I am really curious about how American audiences will respond to it. I am slightly nervous because the ways in which the African continent was looked down upon, especially just before the civil-rights movement, and how lots of black Americans distanced themselves from Africans because they looked at the continent with shame about this sort of [stereotype of] undeveloped black land of wildness with women riding zebras with bones through their noses. So I am nervous about how the Americans might respond to this show.
Can you talk a little about your explorations of masculinity in your work and why that’s an important theme for you?
I think it probably came from my youth. I was born into a household of women. I had an older sister, my twin sister and I have a little sister. And all the while I never thought of them as being less than or having less agency in the world than I had. … When I was 18 and I started writing poetry I’d write my most precious vulnerabilities down on paper. I’d find poetry events in which I’d go onstage and read them to audiences who would then applaud me. So before realizing the full extent of the power of the patriarchy, I realized I had spent maybe 10 years being vulnerable and people applauding my vulnerability. And lots of men don’t have that experience. They have the complete opposite. They are always told not to cry, to toughen up, etc. And that really drew me, because I realized most people weren’t as emotionally aware as I was, and I am still learning. I am still making mistakes in my relationships and I am still getting things wrong, but I am aware that there is a way out, there’s another way of being, and most men aren’t.
“Barber Shop Chronicles” by Inua Ellams. Nov. 1-3; Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Avenue, Seattle; tickets start at $17.50; 800-982-2787, www.stgpresents.org