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In his critically acclaimed play, Barber Shop Chronicles, British-Nigerian poet Inua Ellams reveals a softer sheen and texture to black life than is commonly seen in the news.

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Photo: Marc Brenner

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If perception is reality, then reality is distorted, at least where the black experience is concerned—and British-Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams seeks to temper that with his Barber Shop Chronicles, coming to the Stanford University campus in November.

“In the last few years, images of black bodies being brutalized by law enforcement were everywhere,” Ellams says via email, interrupting a vacation to comment. “On Twitter. Shared in WhatsApp groups. On prime time news...the images and stories were trending in the U.S. and in the U.K.” The psychological violence of those images, he says, “needs to be countered somehow.”

His setting for the examination of black masculine identity is the barber’s chair, where clients and barbers in six cities—Johannesburg; Harare, Zimbabwe; Kampala, Uganda; Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and London—swap banter, wisdom and advice on the day of a key soccer match on TV.

Presented by the London-based Fuel with the National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, the play is scheduled for Roble gym, a renovated space with a thrust stage and seating on three sides. In the Bay Area, where racial justice is a hot-button issue (see: the 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police; the 2015 death of Mario Woods, shot by five officers; and the March death of unarmed Stephon Clark, shot 20 times by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard) the highly acclaimed play should have resonance.

“I can’t speak about the importance of my work; that is an equation solved by an audience,” Ellams says. His goal, he indicates, is that all of us will see we have values and beliefs in common. “It shows black men at rest,” he notes. “At play. Talking. Laughing. Joking. Not being statistics, targets, tragedies, spectres or spooks...just humans, breathing in a room.” Nov. 8-10, times vary, tickets $50-$60, 375 Santa Teresa St.

 

Originally published in the October/November issue of Silicon Valley

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