Lekhani Chirwa’s first solo show Can I Touch Your Hair?, which is to run at this year’s Vault Festival in London, explores what it means to have Afro-Carribean hair. Chirwa tells Giverny Masso how the show was sparked from a rant about white people feeling entitled to touch her hair uninvited…
How did Can I Touch Your Hair? come about?
It’s a one-woman show I’ve written and I’m going to perform. This is the first time I’ve done something like this. I first wrote it as a monologue – as a rant about white people touching my hair uninvited. I felt I had something to say and I wanted to get my voice out there. I wrote and performed it at the Actors Centre [in London] where they had a showcase of BAME work. A lot of people said: “This is really good, you should develop it.”
What is the show about?
It’s about Afro-Caribbean hair. It questions white people’s entitlement to touch black people’s hair and how people can be really fascinated about the many styles we can show. I’ve been told: “This isn’t spoken about much” and a lot of white audience members said: “We didn’t know this is a thing.” It’s not just hair. Black hair is political whether you think of it like that or not. It’s that whole idea of black hair being policed and whether it looks professional or not.
How autobiographical is the show?
The play is very personal, including memories of my dad doing my hair as my mum couldn’t manage it, getting nits and trying to understand how to manage my Afro hair. One of the developments has been to make it more about me, so I’ve had to delve into who I am as Lekhani – what it was like for me growing up in Cumbria with Afro hair as someone that didn’t fit in. It’s about my hair journey, from trying to fit into European beauty standards and how at the beginning I didn’t know how to defend myself or what to say when I didn’t like something. When people used to touch my hair I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, but it got to the point where I said enough is enough.
How did you get into theatre?
I graduated from doing drama and performance at South Bank University in 2015. I went to study at Identity School of Acting in 2016. I then worked with the Delta Collective and I performed in its show Seven. From that show, I found my agent. In 2018 I was in a play that took place in a car called Papa Don’t Preach written by Bola Agbaje. That was my first professional paid credit.
What has been your biggest career challenge so far?
I wasn’t necessarily getting the work I wanted, which is the reason I wrote this play. In the industry you go for audition after audition and it’s not personal, but there are so many actors. My agent is great, but I don’t want to sit and wait for the phone to ring.
Training: BA in drama and performance at London Southbank University
(2012-15); Identity School of Acting (2016)
First professional role: Actor in Papa Don’t Preach in London’s West End
Agent: Daniel Tasker at Billboard Personal Management
Can I Touch Your Hair? runs at Vault Festival, London on March 8 and 9. More information is available at: vaultfestival.com/whats-on