It is promising when a theater set gets its own round of applause, and David Zinn’s vibrant and ingenious imagining for Jaja’s African Hair Braiding (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, booking to Nov. 5) on Broadway deservedly gets just that when the full interior glory of the imagined hair braiding shop in Harlem just off 125th Street reveals itself.
Along with its bustling set of chairs, hair model posters, a Ghanian flag, and much, much Barbie-ish pink, Jocelyn Bioh’s play, set in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019 and produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, has all the energy and rich character interplay that her excellent award-winning 2017 play, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, possessed.
The play, which focuses on one full day of custom and life at the braiding shop, is about the small stuff of difficult and lovely customers, and the jokes, intimacies, friendships, confidences, and conflicts of any workplace. It is also about bigger dreams and intended, achieved and thwarted ambitions, identity—and, at its heart, the community of female workers within its four walls who, despite some bruising arguments, are fundamentally there for each other.
Bioh is writing from the heart, or maybe the head. “For most of my life, truly since I was 4 years old, I have been wearing my hair in braids,” she writes in the introduction to the play. “I have had braids for so long, I can actually name the 3 times in my life when I did NOT have braids or some type of extensions for a significant amount of time. So I have spent a very large portion of my life in hair braiding shops and can tell you all about them.”
This play, Bioh writes, “is for each and every person who enters the shop. Their hopes. Their dreams. Their incredible stories of how and why they came to this country. I celebrate these amazing women and thank them for what they do. To many people, they are just ‘hair braiding ladies’ random women people pass by on the street, but to me, they are heroes, craftswomen and artists with beautiful, gifted and skilled hands.”
For much of the play, Jaja of the title (Somi Kakoma) is absent—preparing for her wedding day to an unseen rich white man, Stephen. Instead, we focus on the calm, oddly reticent authority exerted by her daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne) as she tries to marshal the staff and customers in a mission of professional peace. The Black female characters are variously Senegalese, Nigerian, Ghanian, Sierra Leonean, and American—and the play, besides the personal dramas of its characters, illustrates themes of place and personhood.
Bioh, director Whitney White, costume designer Dede Ayite, and lighting designer Jiyoun Chang animate a wonderfully bristling canvas—the shop is a hub of different customers, and—because it’s a working day—characters can plausibly enter and leave at different moments. Bea (the commanding and brilliant Zenzi Williams) is a staff member who has worked there the longest, tells everything like it is, and brooks no dissension—especially when it comes to the sense of trespass she feels over her customers getting stolen by fellow, much younger stylist Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa).
Bea has a longtime compadre in Aminata (Nana Mensah), but we quickly see that the latter is tiring of her friend’s propensity to pick fights, and also judge her marriage to James (Michael Oloyede). But, as the play reveals, Bea is right to be suspicious of James. And, while Williams revels in the combative nightmare her character can be (just watch how she exits the store; you worry the building will collapse in her fearsome wake), she is also, in the final moments of the play, its beating moral heart. You are so happy that she is there.
Another braider, Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), spends the entire day and play doing the micro braids of Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), a journalist who ultimately hears Miriam’s moving life story so well-concealed behind an easy smile. Even though the play is only 90 minutes, the stretch of time is so well conveyed we applaud the finality of a job well-done when Jennifer’s braids are complete.
Also notable: the actors who play multiple roles. Lakisha May plays three customers, Vanessa, Sheila, and Radia, the first so magificently rude and abrasive that every staff member visibly, and hilariously, recoils from doing her braids (mercifully, she falls fast asleep as soon as she sits down).
Kalyne Coleman plays Michelle, Chrissy, and LaNiece—the first character nervously trying to avoid having Bea do her braids helps set the kindling on fire between Bea and Ndidi. A far more exuberant character, Chrissy really wants hair like Beyoncé. As well as Aminata’s husband, Oloyede plays three men selling socks, DVDs, and jewelry.
What lands, over and over again (going by the gasps and responses of the audience), is Bioh’s dialog as expertly, relishingly delivered by her actors. Bioh is not just adept at writing the wit and vim of the conflicts and rivalries at the store, but also the deep friendships and loyalties within it too. The bitchiness burns bright, but then our hearts momentarily break for Marie when she meets an old schoolfriend who clearly has so much more materially than she does, and a higher education path already mapped out.
Marie is soon facing an even bigger crisis when her mother’s wedding day is horribly derailed—which is when Bea’s true strengths as a colleague come to the fore. Her final speech, as Marie faces an awful crisis which she worries may imperil her entire life in New York City, underlines friendship and community—of doing whatever needs to be done for loved ones and friends. That is what the shop is really about, and Bea—for all her judginess—will do all she formidably can to hold true to its innate, fierce feminism.
In her introduction to the play, Bioh writes that the play is “dedicated to all of my favorite hair braiding ladies: Auntie Maggie, Auntie Cassandra, my sister Jackie, Ali Berry, the sisters—Salimatou and Jaja, Sira in LA, and my current miracle worker—Nafi. Thank you for saving my life and my hair. And to all the dreamers and my dear best friend, Tolu—I love you beyond words.” In Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Bioh has done them all proud.