Since an ill-advised career as a tween Morris dancer, I haven’t spent that much time on stage. That being said, my work behind the scenes of an online actors’ network has given me access to more than my fair share of casting calls. Here, I’ve learnt a fair few things about types of casting – and here I’ve learnt an unfair few things about typecasting.
In Barber Shop Chronicles, playwright Inua Ellams brings a paddle mirror right up to the vision of ‘strong black male’, that all-too-familiar casting trope. Over the course of one average day, with two on-stage clocks taking us from an urgent, door-shaking awakening at 0600, to the close of shop at 2115, the production hops from Lagos to London, Accra to Kampala, Johannesburg to Harare, taking in the sights, sounds and interactions experienced from the comfort of the barber’s chair.
The production is laced with a humour sharper than any razor blade – but the potent punchline of Ellams’ work takes a long time coming. In the final scene, the doors to Peckham’s Three Kings Barbers are pried open beyond closing time, for a young man needs a haircut. The situation is urgent. The customer has been invited to audition tomorrow, and he needs a little help to get a role for which he doesn’t feel qualified. That role is “strong black man”.
According to the casting breakdown provided to the actor, ‘strong black man’ is a very limiting brief. A strong black man can’t shape his eyebrows, he can’t show vulnerability and he can’t live outside the box. However, the actual casting breakdown that came through the National’s Head of Casting, Wendy Spon, for Barber Shop Chronicles tells a very different story. Under a spinning wire globe, we are introduced to a company of 12 actors and 30 characters. We meet the geeky hipster in a beanie hat and denim shirt, and the ambitious young barber who has big dreams of a proper stereo system and wall to wall salon mirrors. In Uganda, there’s the flamboyant Christian man who neither messes with himself nor women, while in South Africa, we hear the tale of the grown-up schoolboy who accepted coin and curse in equal measure, regressively profiting from the children who wanted to scream “kaffir”. In Peckham, Cucumber’s Cyril Nri excels as Emmanuel, a magnetic father figure. All, in their own unique and imperfect ways, are strong – and all, in their own well-crafted and richly performed ways, throw a finger up to the single-phrase casting breakdown.
Maybe it’s the cables that run so precariously around the walls, leading to exposed power boxes so hazardously affixed, but the atmosphere in the Dorfman is electric. The world is ticking, all at once – and there’s an awful lot to take in. When we enter, crossing the salon floor to get to our seats, we have no choice but to mingle with the cast members who energise this space. Under the direction of Bijan Sheibani, the stage crackles with infectious familiarity. As speakers blast hits by Drake and Kendrick Lamar, audience members are swept up in a flurry of chat, dance and handshakes. The shop, such a refuge for all of the show’s characters, is firmly positioned at the centre of the world – and the improvised interactions through the pre-party are so natural, they almost mask a 23 minute delay in getting started.
Confronting lost fathers and genocides, education systems and dating techniques with equal weight, scope, measured humour and humanity, Ellams accomplishes his vision of the barber shop as “the community where men come to be men” – but what this masculinity means is so refreshing and exhilarating, and so progressively open to interpretation. If only all casting breakdowns were so well groomed.
Barber Shop Chronicles is on at the National Theatre until 8th July 2017. Click here for more details.