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  • Jonathan Kalb

Ladies Who Braid

Jocelyn Bioh’s Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is a fizzy and delightful sit-com, but there’s way more to it than that. The crew of women who gather in the title’s Harlem hair salon may fit familiar TV tropes—workplace rivals, sassy gossips, eager strivers, touchy frenemies—but they’re all also keenly observed, sensitively drawn individuals whose style, substance and backstories are refreshingly new to the American stage. A typical sit-com is generally a shallow and complacent thing, coasting on punchy backchat and rolling triviality. Jaja’s, like Bioh’s previous drama—her 2017 breakout work School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play—has a similar glossy surface but it’s fueled by the vibrancy and novelty of its scrappy female characters, along with the amazing hairstyles they create. Once again the environment is women-centered. The braiders at Jaja’s are immigrants from a slew of African countries (Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria) who practice a truly fascinating handicraft and share their sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious stories of love, loss, perseverance, legal insecurity, and adjustment to America.

Part of the thrill of this production, swiftly and seamlessly directed by Whitney White, is the charged atmosphere in the house. The audience at the packed performance I attended at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre looked to be about 90 percent Black and 75 percent female, and throughout the show’s intermissionless 90 minutes there were bright and heartfelt giggles, howls, and sighs of recognition around me. It happened after snappy comments and gestures but also with the entrances of certain characters who evidently felt familiar—such as the Sock Man, DVD Man and Jewelry Man (all played by Michael Oloyede) who traipse into the salon to flirt and make a buck. This audience was reveling in the pleasure of seeing its world reflected back from the stage of MTC’s historically white Broadway venue. And truly, that kind of an open-armed welcome is as rare there as a seven-figure lotto win.

The action of Jaja’s takes place over a single business day during the hot, prepandemic summer of 2019, when the undocumented proprietor is mostly away dressing for her wedding. The wedding is probably a green-card scam, even though love is in the air for Jaja. Her daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne) manages the place, and everyone can see that this bright and articulate 18-year-old—valedictorian at a prep school she attended under a fake name—really should be off starting college. The braiders are: Bea (Zenzi Williams) a grumpy gossipmonger who thinks she could run the place better than Jaja and accuses newcomer Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) of stealing her customers; Ndidi, a relentlessly upbeat “spitfire” (Bioh’s word) who has the best rapport with customers, braids intimidatingly fast, and makes the most money; Aminata (Nana Mensah), Bea’s preferred gossip partner whose wastrel husband James (also played by Michael Oloyede) we see sweettalking and mooching from her; and Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), a deceptively soft-spoken beauty who reveals that she divorced her husband after being impregnated by a Sierra Leonean rock star and thinks she’s “not like average African woman, eh. No more time for quiet. I want to be loud, yeah?”

We do eventually meet Jaja (Somi Kakoma), who breezes in to show off her extravagant wedding gown, fusses and bosses, then bounces out to what no one assumes will be a happy ending. And we meet a string of customers, some appreciative, some ludicrously unpleasant, each a distinct, sharply drawn cameo that Bioh weaves deftly into the shop’s social fabric. The acting is excellent through and through—no small feat with material demanding so much crack comic timing as this—though I will admit that a few foreign accents in the cast were hard-going for me.

The general picture Jaja’s paints is of a remarkable female sanctum, a unique place where, despite all the sniping and competitiveness, vulnerable yet very plucky women find solidarity and forge important bonds. Escapist Nollywood video clips playing constantly on the background TV are a reminder of the fantasy element of everyone’s romantic dreams. But with echoes of Trump’s anti-immigrant taunts never far off (remember “shithole countries”?), we know they can never forget the danger of arrest and deportation that lurks everywhere for them.

Which brings up my one quibble with Bioh’s script: she waits until the last ten minutes to reveal any explicit consciousness of this dark side of the women’s lives, and that leaves her lighthearted comedy looking like it suddenly wants to be a serious social drama. I suppose, if you can write the fizz as well as Bioh can, no one will damn you for riding on its bubbles a bit longer than you probably should have.

Photos: Matthew Murphy

by Jocelyn Bioh

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

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