By Jocelyn Bioh; Directed by Whitney White
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Runs through 11.19.23
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
by Ed Malin on 10.7.23
(L-R): Dominique Thorne and Somi Kakoma in Jaja's African Hair Braiding. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: A busy day in a Harlem salon brings together many amazing, authentic women with a lot to say.
Manhattan Theatre Club is really bringing a season of diverse voices to Broadway. Even seasoned New Yorkers will surely be enthralled by Jocelyn Bioh’s beautiful ensemble piece Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, which takes place on one hot summer day in 2019 in the Harlem salon of Senegalese immigrant Jaja, her daughter Marie, and their talented community of entrepreneurs. Does a 2019 setting feel like a period piece? We didn’t have COVID yet, and we still had free-range Donald Trump. Yet, as the play lets new and true Americans relate, there is much more we can do to help each other.
It’s early morning when stylist Miriam (Brittany Adebumola) helps teenage Marie (Dominique Thorne) open Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Marie's mother’s shop in Harlem. David Zinn’s exquisite set rotates so we can see different angles of the story. Over the course of the next hour and a half comes a non-stop parade of local people doing hair, getting their hair done (sometimes, a twelve-hour process), making future plans, interacting with a variety of recognizable men from sock salesman to degenerate husband (all played by Michael Oloyede), feuding over customers, watching Nigerian soap operas, and even heading to City Hall to get married. Only in America can people achieve so many dreams so quickly, we hear from these African immigrants who make hair beautiful.
Marie, high school valedictorian, is deciding on where to go to college and is taking a gap year while she seeks a path to the Ivy League. Part of the problem is that both Marie and her mother Jaja (Somi Kakoma) are undocumented, and have often needed to worry more about the hair salon business than about other forms of happiness. As Miriam relates to her client, Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), who spends the entire day getting micro braids, Miriam came from Sierra Leone after convincing her lazy and disrespectful (but for some reason locally powerful) husband that she was a witch. We are told this is what it takes for a woman to make her own decisions.
The battle for financial security continues in the other chairs, where long-time stylist Sista Bea (Zenzi Williams) loses several clients to Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), who is renting a chair until her own establishment can be repaired. The good news for Chrissy (Kalyne Coleman) is, if you want to think your hair looks like Beyonce’s you can ask about that here. Indeed, many people stopping in are doing so before starting a new job or going on vacation. Aminata (Nana Mensah) gives an amazing new hairstyle to Vanessa (Lakisha May), a somewhat rude client who falls asleep during her do and mentions she is a night shift nurse. Sista Bea can’t stop worrying long enough to lower her blood pressure, and Aminata hopes her own sleazy husband will treat her right or leave her alone. Maintaining a reputation and earning money of one’s own is absolutely crucial, as it is for Jaja, who is getting married today…to a white man…which will give her U.S. citizenship…if “Stephen” can be trusted. The plot thickens.
Kalyne Coleman and Maechi Aharanwa in Jaja's African Hair Braiding. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Throughout, Dede Ayite’s costumes show that these characters are very much who they want to be, no matter where they are. While Marie dreams of going away to school and Miriam plans to go back to Sierra Leone and reconnect with the man she herself likes, the salon is the place where women come to be “loud.” Aminata stops the show by lip-synching to a Nollywood drama (video by Stefania Bulbarella, starring Onye Eme-Akwari and Morgan Scott) in which a woman dramatically tells a man to check himself. Dawn-Elin Fraser’s dialect and vocal coaching enhances the power of these voices, as does the lively original music from Justin Ellington. Hair and wigs by Nikiya Mathis take on a life of their own here, especially with the aforementioned micro braids. Obie-winning director Whitney White and the stellar cast ensure there is never a dull moment, juggling entrances and exits so that a mere ten performers can play many more characters and move at a very New York pace. If it weren’t for Jiyoun Chang’s lighting, it would similarly be impossible to fit a whole day into an hour and a half.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, by Ghanaian-American writer and New Yorker Jocelyn Bioh, deserves your support. The somewhat sudden ending may remain surprising even after you see it, but the message that people matter more than any government policy or traditional gender role is crystal clear. In our city of generations of immigrants, the people determine who is in charge and will vote next year to choose who will be in the White House. Perhaps you can make some plans of your own wherever you get your hair done.
(Jaja’s African Hair Braiding plays at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through November 19, 2023. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 7, Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2. There are some schedule variations, so check website for details. Tickets are $74 - $205.50; premium seating is also available. For more information visit manhattantheatreclub.com or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.)
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Whitney White. Scenic Design by David Zinn. Costume Design by Dede Ayite. Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang. Original Music & Sound Design by Justin Ellington. Video Design by Stefania Bulbarella. Hair & Wig Design by Nikiya Mathis. Dialect & Vocal Coach is Dawn-Elin Fraser. Production Stage Manager is Melanie J. Lisby. Stage Manager is Monét Thibou.
The cast is Brittany Adebumola, Maechi Aharanwa, Rachel Christopher, Kalyne Coleman, Somi Kakoma, Lakisha May, Nana Mensah, Michael Oloyede, Dominique Thorne, and Zenzi Williams.