The Barber Shop Chronicles playwright tells Hugh Montgomery how he loved seeing audiences respond to the show as though it was real life and how his migratory childhood has informed his work in theatre
A first preview performance can be nerve-racking. But when Barber Shop Chronicles made its debut at the National’s Dorfman Theatre in London, writer Inua Ellams knew they had something special on their hands.
“It was 15 minutes longer than it should have been, but it was phenomenal,” he says. “We had people in the audience responding to the actors as though it wasn’t theatre and was real life. So, from then I was very happy.”
Anyone who saw Ellams’ hit play on the South Bank will have surely shared in his joy. Immersing theatregoers in the hustle and bustle of African barber shops, from Peckham to Lagos, it offers a portrait of black masculinity that is tender, funny and, in part, celebratory.
“Stories that involve black boys are still overwhelmingly about stabbing,” Ellams says. “Therefore, there’s a perception that this dominates a lot of black-British, youthful energies, which, if you look at the numbers and just think logically, cannot be the truth. There’s still a need for black men to be seen as just men who are black.”
The 34-year-old poet and playwright first had the kernel of an idea for the play in 2009. His girlfriend at the time gave him a flyer for an initiative teaching barbers how to act as counsellors to their clientele. It got him thinking about the importance of barber shops for black men – how they were a “sacred space for the blossoming of real trust and vulnerability” among a demographic who weren’t typically allowed to be vulnerable.
Barber shops are natural theatrical spaces for storytelling
Ellams had not frequented barber shops since he was a child growing up in Nigeria, so he started visiting them again to listen in on the conversations that went on there – with a view to writing poetry first of all. However, he soon realised they were “natural theatrical spaces for storytelling – and then the idea for a play began to come forth”.
At the National, the play brought in new – specifically black – audiences on an exhilarating scale. Ellams credits its success on that front to the “perfect marketing” by his long-time producer Kate McGrath, director of innovative theatre company Fuel.
“What she did was brilliant and as it should be, which is to make sure we had an audience who reflected the world of the play.” And that audience had a knock-on effect on how Barber Shop Chronicles was received, he believes. “When the reviewers weren’t understanding things, they didn’t think it was poorly written. They just realised that ‘maybe there are other energies here we don’t get’, which forced them to lean into it further and understand its cultural nuances.”
But above all, it confirmed that, for all the agonised discussions about diversity, there is one self-evident truth: if you commission work that reflects people’s own lives, then they will come. “I remember speaking to a young lady of Ugandan descent. Her grandfather had passed away four years ago,” says Ellams. “She was like: ‘That’s him on stage. That’s him talking to me right there. I’ve been coming to theatre for a decade, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen anyone that close to my family.’ ”
Now, after two National runs and dates across the world, Barber Shop Chronicles is heading on tour around the UK. Getting the show outside London is integral to Ellams. Discussing the 2017 tour of his one-man, autobiographical show An Evening With An Immigrant, he says: “It was cathartic for me to realise that in the parts of the country I thought would be hostile to immigrants, their hostility came from ignorance more than malice. Therefore, I could chip away at that.”
Ellams’ work is all rooted in his migratory childhood. When he was 12, his family fled from Nigeria to the UK to escape persecution by Islamic fundamentalists. From there, they moved to Dublin before returning to London when he was 18. He never consciously decided to pursue a career as a storyteller but at some point “realised that my whole life had been preparing me for it. I always lived in many countries, and I was always trying to reconstruct a narrative of myself in those countries.”
What’s more, he says: “I only started writing because I couldn’t do anything else. It was illegal for me to work at the time because of my immigration status. I started writing because I had time on my hands and paper was plentiful.”
Theatrically, this is going to be a big year for Ellams. Alongside the Barber Shop Chronicles tour, his latest play, The Half God of Rainfall, opens in April. Epic in scope, it combines ancient Greek and Yoruba folklore to tell the story of Demi, a “half-Nigerian mortal, half-Olympian child” with a gift for basketball. What he has created via such a cultural mash-up is a modern myth that reflects “globalisation and cross-national communities”, he says.
What was your first non-theatre job?
The only non-theatre job I’ve ever had, which was working at JJB Sports in Dublin.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The 14th Tale – my first play. It was awesome. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just trusted my director and Kate, my producer.
What’s your next job?
Either a one-off TV drama based on a five-minute film I made for the BBC called Swipe Slow, or Three Sisters at the National Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That you’re going to lose far more than you love, so just buckle up for the ride.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If I had to pick one, it would be Terry Pratchett. When I first arrived here as a kid, there was a book in the library called Pyramids, which I took home because there was a half-naked lady balanced on the back of a camel on the cover. It was my first introduction to British humour and I absolutely got it. I was cackling, such that I felt that Terry wrote it for me. I thought: ‘If he could create this story for me and it can be so close to my very Nigerian heart, maybe there’s space for me in England.’
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. When I used to perform one-man shows, I just tried to be a storyteller, and the conduit of the story. I never thought: ‘I’m gonna act this character.’ Regardless of how alien, how vicious, how horrible or how gorgeous the character may be, just try to make sure it feels like an extension of your body, your spirit and your soul.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
When I was a kid I wanted to be an architect.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Yes. One of my favourite poets is a guy called Saul Williams and he has this line in one of his poems: “God, grant me wings. I’m too fly not to fly.” So whenever I perform, that’s the prayer I say to myself before going on stage.
Later in the year he returns to the National with a new adaptation of Three Sisters, which will relocate Chekhov’s play to late-1960s Nigeria, when the country was engaged in a civil war. It will be his fourth project with the theatre, who put on his first play, The 14th Tale, in 2010. Ellams says he sometimes feels like “the luckiest man in theatre” for the relationship he has established with the venue, “which isn’t to dial down how hard-working I am,” he adds, “but hard work is never enough”.
He values the organisation for creating a safe space in today’s disturbing political climate – something that was illustrated for him when Rufus Norris first met the cast of Barber Shop Chronicles: “I wasn’t there, but Rufus lay down flat on the ground and prostrated before them, which is the way I would greet my grandfather in Nigeria. For him to be aware of that custom is one thing, but for him to have done that before the cast is something else.”
The last year or so has seen some gratifying progress in the amplification of black British playwrights. Alongside Barber Shop Chronicles’ success, Arinze Kene’s Misty and Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night have both enjoyed hit West End runs.
But while Ellams hopes this marks a sea change, he’s wary of assuming that is the case. He worries, counter-intuitively, that should the current wave of nationalism and xenophobia subside, there could be the “suggestion that there isn’t a need for diverse voices any more because they are all safe again”. He is also concerned that black artists are simply not given the same right to fail. “I feel like if I ever make a mistake and create a bad piece of work, there will be other writers of black cultural heritage who might not be given opportunities in case they make a mess,” he says.
Ultimately, he’d rather any discussion of black theatre was rendered obsolete: “I hope there will be a time where it isn’t viewed as that and will be just theatre.”
Born: Jos, Nigeria, 1984
Training: Apples and Snakes’ Poets in Education scheme
• The 14th Tale, Battersea Arts Centre (2008); Edinburgh Fringe and UK tour (2009); National Theatre (2010)
• Untitled, Soho Theatre and UK tour (2010)
• Black T-Shirt Collection, National Theatre and UK tour (2012)
• The Spalding Suite, Southbank Centre and UK tour (2015)
• An Evening With an Immigrant, Soho Theatre (2015); UK tour (2017)
• Barber Shop Chronicles, National Theatre (2017)
• Edinburgh Fringe First Award (2009)
• Live Canon international poetry prize (2014)
• Liberty Human Rights Award (2017)
Agent: Tanya Tillett, The Agency