If there was ever a play that tells an African American story that hasn’t yet been given the theatrical time of day, it is “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” shines a light never before seen on Broadway and demonstrates that it DOES indeed belong here! This touching Manhattan Theatre Club play tells the story of the hair braiders who come to work at Jaja’s African Hair Braiding shop in Harlem. They hail from various African countries and have come to the states to make money by using their hands and skills to create marvelous hairstyles. It is a play by Jocelyn Bioh, and a tribute to the hard work that these craftswomen accomplish with their braiding skills. Each woman who works at Jaja’s shop has their own story to share—speaking to how individualized we all are. They also demonstrate that people should not be underestimated or judged by their outside demeanor. This play shows the bonds that women can share, but also the conflicts that can occur between us as we compete to survive. No matter what, however, in the end we are Sistas and we will look out for each other.
Bioh gives us characters that we can all relate to and enjoy on so many levels. There is Bea, a veteran of the hair shop and a woman who speaks her mind and calls people out when she feels they have done her wrong. She is someone who is also wise and can be kind. Shop owner Jaja, also a maid, is getting ready to get married to become a U.S. citizen. Her daughter Marie runs the hair shop for her, but has dreams of her own. Hair braider Miriam seems quiet and reserved, but turns out to be the exact opposite. Another hair braider Aminata is friends with Bea, but they have a love/hate relationship as Bea tries to tell her about issues with Aminata’s husband. Aminata is very hard working, has high blood pressure, and just can’t see what is right in front of her. Ndidi is a hair braider who is fast and flowing. She is the young competition for Bea and she is not apologizing for Bea feeling threatened. Everyone is doing what they need to do to survive. Customers come into the shop with their own attitudes and emotional baggage, while some simply come to get their hair done and look like Beyonce.
This play delivers a lot of laughs, a lot of zaniness, and feels a lot like watching a Nollywood film on YouTube, complete with great humor and African music. This ensemble cast hits the ground running for the 90 minutes that you share in their world. From the workers to the customers, you will have a thoroughly good time. This cast features Zenzi Williams as Bea; Nana Mensah as Aminata; Dominique Thorne as Marie, Brittany Adebumola as Miriam; Maechi Aharanwa as Ndidi; Rachel Christopher as Jennifer, a customer; Somi Kakoma as Jaja; and Kalyne Coleman playing multiple customer roles, and Lakisha May also playing multiple customer roles. Michael Oloyede plays several roles including Aminata’s husband and the male merchants who frequent these shops, selling everything from socks to jewelry. Now that is something that we have all experienced in our neighborhood beauty parlor, right, ladies?
Seeing this play is such a joy, but it does have an ending that will leave you pondering the plight of the ladies that we see every day. What are their stories? What does it mean to them to be in this country and what risks do they endure to remain here? Also, what disrespect do they have to endure in order to make their dreams of success a reality? It was wonderful to be in the theater and notice so many beautiful Black women with their hair just flowing throughout the audience. Go on my Sistas! This production is written by a Black woman, stars Black women and is terrifically directed by a Black woman—Whitney White! It is also produced by Tony Award winner LaChanze and actress Taraji P. Henson. Please, everyone, go and see this show. You will be entertained, enlightened, and moved. For more info, visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.