In the world premiere of Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, a production of Manhattan Theatre Club playing a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh, making her Broadway debut, gives us an intimate look at the life of the West African immigrant owners and stylists of a hair salon in Harlem, and the customers and men they deal with, on a hot July day in 2019. Directed by Whitney White, the fast-paced laughs and slow reveals of the spirited comedy make us care about the characters and feel at home with them, while giving us a better understanding of the aspirations they have, the issues they face, the camaraderie they share, and the dramatic turn the show takes at its unresolved timely conclusion.
A terrific ensemble cast of ten, with three portraying multiple roles of the clients and men who come into the shop, delivers the distinctive personalities, accents (dialect and vocal coaching by Dawn-Elin Fraser), and demeanors, along with all the humor and heart of their story. It begins and ends with Marie (Dominique Thorne), the eighteen-year-old valedictorian, budding writer, and daughter of Jaja (Somi Kakoma) who runs the salon in her mother’s absence (Jaja is about to be married to the white Steven, of whom Marie disapproves, in part to gain her American citizenship), with deferred dreams of attending college – a situation she doesn’t want to discuss but ultimately surfaces. Her three-dimensional performance goes from animated to controlled to traumatized, with a thought-provoking ending that addresses a pressing concern in our current socio-political climate (which her mother earlier rails against, along with the white women who come into Jaja’s wanting her to give them “the Bo Derek hair”).
Though the strength of the narrative is in the community, the four hairstylists, immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal, are all given their moments in the spotlight to communicate their own perspectives and backstories, dreams and challenges, and to keep us laughing out loud with their free-flying quips, funny disputes, spontaneous dances, and uninhibited reactions. Each convincingly embodies a specific individual, but with the shared goal of working hard to have a better life and, despite their squabbles and differences, to provide support for one another when needed most.
Brittany Adebumola turns in a heartening performance as the quiet and kind Miriam, who spends the entire day and night weaving micro-braids (which none of her co-workers would do) till her fingers blister, openly discusses her life and goals with her attentive and patient client Jennifer – beautifully played by Rachel Christopher – and enthusiastically admits that though she’s soft-spoken on the surface, she loves to be loud and to enjoy her life. Nana Mensah’s Aminata suffers from high blood pressure and a crumbling but impassioned marriage, laughably questioning how the doctor would know that and then acknowledging that of course she has stress, while still seeing and enabling her cheating husband. Ndidi, played with spirit by Maechi Aharanwa, is the fastest braider and thereby makes the most money, stealing clients and angering Zenzi Williams’s outspoken Bea – a hilarious powerhouse who’s been there the longest, never hesitates to say what she thinks, to gossip about everyone, to compete with her colleagues and boss, or to step up, make a plan, and take the lead to enlist and help her chosen family at Jaja’s.
Rounding out the thoroughly engaging cast are Kalyne Coleman in the multiple roles of Michelle, LaNiece, and Chrissy (who wants braids that will make her “look like Beyoncé”), Lakisha May as Radia, Sheila, and Vanessa (a disagreeable customer that no one wants to work on), and Michael Oloyede as the street-vending Sock Man, Jewelry Man, Aminata’s on-again-off-again husband James, and the concerned Eric, who informs the women about the surprising turn of events on Jaja’s wedding day. The characterizations are all unique, with the excellent actors rendering themselves indistinguishable from one to the next.
Integral to the outstanding performances is the show’s equally impressive artistic design. David Zinn’s rotating set displays photos of models with the variety of braiding styles on the bright pink walls of the well-stocked shop, a digital screen that the stylists exuberantly watch, sing, recite, and dance along to (video design by Stefania Bulbarella; original music and sound by Justin Ellington), and the metal roll-up security gate that keeps the salon safe when closed, supported by Jiyoun Chang’s changes in lighting. Dede Ayite’s character-defining costumes contrast the casual and professional attire of today with the African-inspired clothing of the immigrant stylists, and the wide array of hair and wigs by Nikiya Mathis are nothing short of dazzling, paying homage to the demanding artistry of the industrious braiders, in a highly entertaining production that will make you laugh, feel, and think.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding plays through Sunday, November 19, 2023, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $74-298, including fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online.