Review: ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ Offers an Exhilarating Sanctuary

The earth is a planet built for speed in “Barber Shop Chronicles,” which burst open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Tuesday in an intoxicating cloud of adrenaline and talcum powder. Watching Inua Ellams’s globe-girdling, London-born play, you feel the world spinning so fast that you half expect its far-flung inhabitants to slide across continents and fall into one another’s laps.

Velocity is usually not a trait associated with barbershops — especially the old-fashioned kind seen here, where men gather to fulminate, pontificate, gossip and just listen for hours at a time. And it is a happy contradiction of Bijan Sheibani’s endlessly vibrant production, brought to BAM for the Next Wave Festival, that time does indeed seem to stand still as its characters do what it takes to make a man a little better groomed.

But no matter which of the show’s six tonsorial outposts is being summoned — in London and five cities in Africa — you sense a force of gravity tugging its inhabitants into a whooshing cycle of life that stretches far beyond barbershop doors. It seems apt that in the play’s first scene, set at 6 a.m. in Lagos, Nigeria, an importunate young customer asks the barber he’s so rudely awakened to give him an “aerodynamic” cut.

The young man specifies the effect he’s looking for by quoting from an ad for a fancy car: “Zero miles per hour never looked so fast.” It’s a phrase that perfectly captures the artful headiness of this group portrait of black men who — no matter where they are, and no matter how stationary they may be — are always radiant with a history of flux, migration and forward-rushing expectation.

A hit at London’s National Theater in 2017, “Chronicles” has since been touring Britain and the United States and is guaranteed to sweep up any audience in its tail winds. (I am sad to report that it runs at BAM only through Sunday.) The show begins before the play does, with the production’s dozen actors (all male) ushering theatergoers onto the stage to try out the movable fleet of barber’s chairs, pose for selfies and perhaps wriggle to the hip-hop music blasting the air.

The view from the audience at this point is of an irresistible chaos, of an open market or street fair in full swirl. Then, at a certain magical point, chaos turns into harmony.

Cast members rush the front of the stage as a writhing, buoyant unit of highly individual dancers, whipping their barbers’ capes as if they were matadors and pumping the air with their fists. They suggest a nimble, ecstatic cadre of sports fans, anticipating victories to come. (Full credit to Aline David, the movement director.)

Other kinetic routines punctuate the show’s fleet hour and 45 minutes, as it moves among different locations within the same 24 hours. It is, as it happens, the day of a big soccer match (Chelsea versus Barcelona), and television sets are a point of focus in each barbershop.

Ellams’s script doesn’t belabor that match as a connective point, and it doesn’t need to. Because no matter where the men of “Chronicles” are, and no matter what generation they belong to, they find themselves acting out similar patterns in conversation, conflicts and confessions. (The superb corps of actors, many of whom play several parts, unfailingly locate both the universality and idiosyncrasy of their characters.)

As the show proceeds, these patterns invisibly coalesce to define its central theme: What does it mean to be a black man, of African origin, at this fast and fluid moment in time? How much is he defined by tradition, and what is the price of escaping his past, if that’s even possible?

The sly marvel of “Chronicles” is how it insinuates its themes into your consciousness. The local accents and vernaculars of the characters may initially bewilder some American ears. But as you keep listening, these men start to sound not only comprehensible but naturally poetic in dialogue that echoes across continents.

If there’s a paramount subject under consideration, it’s the relationship between sons and fathers, especially sons and absent fathers. The forms this preoccupation takes are myriad, and include a new, young dad paralyzed by the notion of bringing up a baby and discussions of African leaders (including Mugabe and Mandela) as paternal figures.

Then there are the more intimate, intergenerational dramas in the Three Kings barbershop in London and establishments in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda. You may not realize it until near the play’s end, but there have been several emotionally fraught tales of divided families taking shape, as specific as any soap opera story line.

The connections among these stories extend beyond the city in which they’re being immediately described. The people of “Chronicles” are travelers. There’s frequent talk of imminent ocean-crossing trips, generating a feeling of life as an eternal, restless diaspora.

There’s a sense, too, of cultures in mutation. And the talk embraces debates — both earthy and highfalutin — about language (and the role of pidgin as a defense against acculturation in Britain), music, homosexuality and interracial sex. Oh, and there are jokes, or rather the same joke told, with hilarious variations, in the different barbershops.

If the play were presented as autonomous, uninterrupted scenes, most of the stories probably wouldn’t seem all that arresting or original. It’s the unstoppable energy and panoramic view that give “Chronicles” its profundity.

It feels right that a wire model of the earth should be suspended, like a disco ball, over the gloriously metamorphic set by the estimable Rae Smith (best known for the epic “War Horse”). There’s a big clock, too, the hands of which move to match the different time zones in which the various scenes are set.

Not that you’ll be likely to be checking that clock during the show. A customer in Lagos, talking to his barber about the differences between Africa and the industrialized West, explains: “People dey obsessed with time schedules, producing identical things; they started to package time. But Africa, we no agree oh! That’s the reason why we say we’ll come at 1 o’clock, but no go reach till 3.”

This leads him to a triumphant boast that this singular, exhilarating show improbably makes good on: “Time cannot contain us!”

Barber Shop Chronicles

Tickets Through Dec. 8 at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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