"Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” --- perfect! --- @ manhattantheatreclub.com - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Wednesday, October 4, 2023

"Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” --- perfect! --- @ manhattantheatreclub.com

"Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” --- perfect!

If you reside in Harlem, as I do, or have had the pleasure of visiting this vibrant neighborhood (which I highly recommend), then “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” penned by Jocelyn Bioh, resonates instinctively. For me, part of its charm lies in the frequent encounters inside subway stations and on 125th Street, where skilled hands braid hair with expertise.

To say that Bioh captured this essence accurately is an understatement. Here, she invites us into Jaja’s bustling storefront. Set on one of the hottest days on record, with an air conditioner that had a mind of its own, the heat weaves itself into the narratives of the braiders and their customers.

The African women at the heart of this tale come to life vividly. Against the backdrop of mid-Trump Harlem, these West African immigrants portray sharp tongues and keen observations about the challenges they face, fueled by the ignorance and racism that seem to breed unchecked, especially within the walls of the White House.

Bioh expertly navigates this 90-minute story, infusing it with humor and profound drama. Yes, drama in abundance. Who could have imagined that one small Harlem shop could hold so many complex, dramatic lives?

David Zinn's set design plays a crucial role in storytelling, from the grated entrance that requires unlocking and lifting, to the transformative stage direction by Whitney White. As an audience, we find ourselves inside the shop, perhaps waiting for our own appointment or accompanying a friend or family member. The point is, we are there, immersed in the narrative.

The stylists at Jaja’s are independent contractors, a fact that adds a layer of hustle to their daily lives. They negotiate their prices individually, paying Jaja a percentage. The struggle is palpable, yet these resilient women manage to find dignity in their challenging circumstances, leaving a deep impact on me.

Five women work at the salon, not counting Jaja's 18-year-old daughter, Marie (Dominique Thorne), who runs the shop's day-to-day operations with more efficiency than her own mother, as noted by one of the older women. Marie dreams of college, a dream she doesn't dare pursue due to her undocumented status, living a life on a tightrope every day.

Romance, like in most human lives, takes center stage. Bea (Zenzi Williams) sees herself as the boss when Jaja is absent, giving herself permission to stir up maximum drama. Her ultimate goal is to own her own shop, a dream she frequently shares with anyone who listens: "When I get my shop, there won’t be any eating of smelly foods like this," she declares, envisioning changes she plans to implement once “I get my shop.”

Bea's frenzy reaches new heights when a client chooses Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), a younger, kinder, and faster braider, believing that she's stealing clients. Subplots entwine themselves around the salon, reminiscent of the West African soap operas broadcasted on their television. Aminata (Nana Mensah) struggles with a lazy husband who squanders her hard-earned money on other women. Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), observant and quiet, reveals her past as she explains to a client the horrors she escaped in Sierra Leone.

For Jaja (Somi Kakoma), issues with men persist, a common theme in her life. Upon her arrival, dressed in her wedding attire, she boasts about a possible green-card marriage scam with a local white landlord.

Much of the comedy emerges from the clients, seven of whom are portrayed by three actors. One client is exceptionally rude, prompting the money-hungry braiders to feign being fully booked. Another insists on looking exactly like Beyoncé for her birthday. Yet another talks loudly, while a different client enjoys a meal as Bea meticulously refreshes her intricate hairstyle. Observing them all is Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), who patiently sits in Miriam’s chair for an entire 12 hours, waiting for her long micro braids.

Bioh presents these women with complexity, layering their stories with comedic tones before making a sharp turn into more somber territory.

The creative team for Jaja’s African Hair Braiding includes David Zinn (Scenic Design); Dede Ayite (Costume Design); Jiyoun Chang (Lighting Design); Justin Ellington (Original Music & Sound Design); Stefania Bulbarella (Video Design); Nikiya Mathis (Hair & Wig Design); Dawn-Elin Fraser (Dialect & Vocal Coach); Caparelliotis Casting, Kelly Gillespie, & Erica Hart (Casting); and Melanie J. Lisby (Production Stage Manager). 

“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is now playing through November 5 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan. For more information, visit manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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