NEW YORK — The show curtain has a painting guide for those unfamiliar with it: box braids, cornrows, micro braids, Ghana braids, tree braids. Even if you’re lucky and your stylist is in the right mood, awkward twists may emerge.
You can find all these looks at Jaja’s, the Harlem braid shop that’s at the heart of Jocelyn Bioh’s wildly vibrant new Broadway play, directed by Whitney White and co-produced by Manhattan Theater Club and commercial producer Madison Wells Live.
There have been many shows – comedies like “Steel Magnolias”, detective shows like “Shear Madness”, even operas. “Real” – takes place in barber shops and hair salons over the years.
From where? Writers love them.
People come and go, but they don’t stick around long enough to share their problems and reveal their personalities. Workplace conversations happen everywhere, but single-gender-dominated rooms often make it a specialty. There’s also something particularly intimate about having someone manipulate your hair: Disgruntled clients become confessors, stylists become cynical psychiatrists.
Lounges are often gossip havens, always good for a laugh. But as we see in this exhibition, they can also be safe spaces.
A very entertaining 90 minutes, “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” has the advantage that braiding hair is a long and complex process and requires great dexterity on the part of the stylist. And of course, this has long been the specialty of solopreneurs; Like the women who hold the chairs at this salon in Harlem, it serves not only Black Americans but also immigrant women from Africa, many of whom are experts in the craft.
Bioh’s game is a closely observed game; So much so that you suspect the author, who is Ghanaian American, spends plenty of quality time at the hair braiding joints on 125th Street, where prices are set solely by your stylist outside the shop, so no one hears about them except both parties involved. The show is meticulous in its recreation of this work, from the use of wigs (by Nikiya Mathis) to the originality of the accessories. The game suggests that knitters have a common skill but a wide variety of techniques and personalities.
In this play, the audience spends a day at Jaja’s, from the moment the metal shutters rise to the moment they fall with the sun, in David Zinn’s hyper-realistic environment. You hang out with the shop’s namesake, the Senegalese (Somi Kakoma), her college-going daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne), steroid-using knitter Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), and the most caching and dramatic knitter, Bea (Zenzi Williams). Ghanaian gossip with a killer personality.
The moral heart of the story is Miriam, played warmly by Brittany Adebumola; she has a quieter spirit, but is the character that most represents what Bioh clearly sees as the role of this store in the lives of the women who work there.
Add customers, sort of, get a little rough and formal. Nothing earth-shattering happens, and not even many conflicts that can’t be resolved later. It’s an ensemble piece, a collection of character studies, a joyful slice of uptown braiding life.
Clearly by design. You don’t have to be a Black woman with braids to enjoy this game: hell, it might just teach you something about the intricacies of a craft you’ve only observed from afar. But this play also seeks to reach Black audiences who have long been ignored by Broadway.
It’s taken the producers a while to get this going, but in this still-young season, there are signs that many are finally realizing that much of the audience they want to reach isn’t looking for dramas about pain, aimed at mostly white audiences, but rather affirmative dramas. experiences that laugh at human foibles and celebrate doing something really well every day.
“Jaja’s” is a comedy about life, community, passion and entrepreneurship lived here.
But mostly, it’s a show about immigrants getting the job done and having fun while doing it, one braid at a time.
at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York; www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.