Barber Shop Chronicles share the stories of African men across the globe

The Barber Shop Chronicles are at NST City, November 13-16, 2019. Picture by Marc Brenner
The Barber Shop Chronicles are at NST City, November 13-16, 2019. Picture by Marc Brenner
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One day. Six cities. A thousand stories.

For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops.

Sometimes they have haircuts, sometimes they listen, more often than not they talk.

Barber shops are confession boxes, political platforms, preacher-pulpits and football pitches... places to go for unofficial advice, and to keep in touch with the world.

Set in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London. The play invites the audience into a uniquely masculine environment where the banter may be barbed, but the truth always telling.

The barbers of these tales are sages, role models and father figures, they are the glue that keeps men together.

Elmi Rashid Elmi plays the part of teenager Ethan, a regular at the London barber shop. Elmi won the role while he was still at the University of West London – he was midway through his second final year production, playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Elmi hadn’t seen the play before he joined the cast, but he says its content rings true to him.

‘It's exactly like it’s told through the play. It’s kind of the one place men together and they get to talk about everything and anything, without anyone judging anyone. It’s kind of like a therapy session for men.

‘You get to talk about football, sports, marriage, masculinity, politics – everything is on the books.’

While the play tackles some heavy themes, its humour helps to bring out the universal nature of its stories.

‘Yeah, absolutely’ says Elmi. ‘You’ve got the banter and you’ve got the humour in there to give it a light tone while talking about hard-hitting subjects that really means something.

‘To have all of these barber shops across all of these different places, and to have that connection between all of them, they’ve got the stories and people that everyone can relate to.

‘And that's what’s been beautiful about the audiences and their response. A lot of people come to see us and they relate to these stories – you can see it in their face when you're performing that they recognise it. 

‘It's for people who don't know what it might be like in a barber shop, as much as it is for the people who know what that experience is.’

One aspect close to Elmi’s own experience is the subject of black masculinity.

Born in England, his parents returned to Somaliland, with Elmi, when he was six. He came back to the UK as a 16-year-old and had to relearn English.

‘It’s real life for me. I’m east African – I’m Somali. You know, some people might consider east Africa not “really African Africa”, because we have that Arab influence, we have a slightly different look.

‘When I started acting, I was like, where do I fit? I'm African, but will I be going up for “black” roles?

‘And this is exactly what my character talks about in the play, and doing that scene, it feels like that part was written for me.

‘Coming into acting, I've always struggled with that, especially coming from a background where acting and the arts are not very encouraged.

‘I’m the oldest in my family and I’d always been encouraged to do something that’s secure and safe.’

Elmi admits he fell into acting almost be accident when he returned to school in the UK and most of the classes were already full.

‘I believe that everything happens for a reason, so that's kind of how I stumbled into the whole acting world.

‘I didn't have enough time to prove myself academically. It took me a while to fit in and then I came across drama by chance – and the drama class had space.

‘I thought I’d give it a go, and ever since then...’

And his family have come around to Elmi’s choice of career too.

‘The family have definitely warmed up to it now. They’ve come to see me perform, my mum came to see me in London six times, she brought my aunties and people from the community, and she’s there going: “That’s my son!”

BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES

NST City, Southampton  

November 13-16

nstheatres.co.uk