Jocelyn Bioh’s inviting workplace comedy, presenting a day in the life of a hair braiding salon in Harlem, would be a shoo-in for two separate Tony Awards, if either existed – one for hair and wig design, the other for ensemble acting.
The cast of ten, most of them making their Broadway debuts, bring us into the swirling world of struggling West African immigrants…and their hairstyles.
Jennifer, a new customer, asks for micro braids, which takes Miriam the entire twelve hours over which the play unfolds, and leaves her fingers full of calluses. “At least they didn’t bleed this time,” Miriam says. Chrissy asks Ndidi for blonde braids that, when finished, seem to dance all the way down to the floor — which fits, because Chrissy has asked to look like Beyoncé. Bea freshens up LaNiece’s impossibly cartoonish Strawberry Knotless Afro-Pop Bob.
And every one of these styles – as well as “simple cornrows with zig-zag parts,”, a “sew-in,” and “jumbo box braids” — are put together before our eyes, using wigs by hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis, and some sleight of hand.
As the wigs are woven, so too are the stories of the characters, especially the four braiders who work as independent contractors in a shop owned by JaJa, who is off today getting married in City Hall. Her husband-to-be is Steven, the white landlord of a nearby building. Braiders Bea and Aminata mock Steve and the sham marriage, but Aminata is practical — “She’s finally going to get married and get her papers” – while Bea, the shop’s resident gossip, is cynical: “Jaja is fooling herself. He is cheating on her.”
This back-and-forth between Zenzi Williams as Bea and Nana Mensah as Aminata highlights two pervasive elements of “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.” The performers make the most of Bioh’s sharp eye for character and precise ear for dialogue that’s both spot-on and hilarious. The exchange also helps establish the play’s serious underlying themes of the uncertain life facing the African immigrant women, in part because of their mistreatment by men, but mostly because of the government policy towards the undocumented. Their dilemma is made most explicit by the story of Jaja’s 18-year-old daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne), who runs the salon in her mother’s absence, doing the assigning and the accounting and, when necessary, the refereeing. Marie wants to be a writer; her mother wants her to be a doctor. She was valedictorian at the fancy private school for which JaJa scraped together tuition and which Marie just graduated, but in order to enroll she had to go by an assumed name, that of a cousin she doesn’t know, who is in the United States legally; her ability to go on to college is now in doubt. Bioh makes the situation more dangerous by setting the play in 2019, the year after the then-president said he didn’t want immigrants from “shithole” countries such as their African homelands.
“Okay, so you want me to go? Fine, I will,” Jaja (Somi Kakoma) says, as if answering the president, during her brief appearance at her salon later in the play to show off her wedding dress. “But when do you want me to leave? Before or after I raise your children? Or clean your house? Or cook your food? Or braid your hair so you look nice-nice before you go on your beach vacation?! [mimics a white woman customer] ‘Oh please miss. Can you give me the Bo Derek hair please?’”
Although the fact of their precarious situation is thus planted throughout the play in tandem with the many joyful and lighthearted moments, a final scene when the comedy turns to tragedy nevertheless feels abruptly tacked on.
Still, the darkness, while sudden, is not wrongheaded, and so much else about “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is so right. Director Whitney White effectively choreographs a busy ballet of braiders, customers and male visitors — mostly cheerful vendors offering socks, jewelry, DVDs (all portrayed with impressive variety by Michael Oloyede) — while making space for extended arias from the characters, most memorably the monologue by Brittany Adebumola as Miriam about her escape from an unloving husband in Sierra Leone.
And the whole is gift-wrapped in some colorful design – David Zinn’s set features first the storefront next to a dark alley and covered by grey gate, which opens to a bright cluttered interior that features the Flag of Senegal on the wall, whose colors are green, yellow and red, but everything else is in pink. Dede Ayite’s costumes are vibrant and precise; we know instantly who are the recent immigrants, who have grown up here.
As in her previous plays, Nollywood Dreams, about the Nigerian film industry, an adapted Merry Wives for Shakespeare in the Park, and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, Bioh, the daughter of Ghanian immigrants, presents African characters you rarely see on a New York stage in all their prettiness and pettiness. But “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is also one of the rare handful of what could be called labor plays in New York in any given season, which shine attention on workers, finding them just as worthwhile as any old celebrity, princess, witch or wizard.
JaJa’s African Hair Braiding
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman through November 19
NOTE: JaJa will now also be livestream for the last week of performance, Nov 14-19. via the League of Livestream Theater for $69
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $74 to $298. Digital rush through Today Tix: $43.Student rush: $30
Written by Jocelyn Bioh
directed by Whitney White
Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by Justin Ellington; Video Design by Stefania Bulbarella; Hair and Wig Design by Nikiya Mathis; Make-Up Design by Felicia Graham;
Cast: Brittany Adebumola as Miriam, Maechi Aharanwa as Ndidi, Rachel Christopher as Jennifer, Kalyne Coleman as Chrissy, Michelle and LaNiece, Somi Kakoma as Jaja, Lakisha May as Vanessa, Radia and Sheila, Nana Mensah as Aminata, Michael Oloyede as James, Sock Man, DVD Man and Jewelry Man, Dominique Thorne as Marie, Zenzi Williams as Bea