Rising star Inua Ellams’ new play explores the scope of conversations in barbershops, from Leeds to Africa. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
Inua Ellams has just been chatting with Jonathan Ross and is a little starstruck.
It’s telling that, despite having a hit play at the National Theatre, Ellams is in awe of the chat show host – it’s not supposed to be that way round. As the talent, the turn, Ellams should be the one who is the subject of admiration.
Then, during our interview, he says something that makes clear why he was the one most impressed when he met Ross.
“At heart, primarily, I am still a poet. I write in and think about the singular voice. The truth is, I feel like I’m chancing it in theatre,” he says. He’s star-struck because he’s the archetypal poet, working away on his own, crafting his thoughts via his words. Showbiz radio, interviews with famous chat show hosts: it’s not a world Ellams ever expected to inhabit. He might have to get used to it. He might feel like he’s chancing it in theatre, but it seems those witnessing his work are seeing the efforts of anything but a chancer. Barber Shop Chronicles is the latest play from the poet-turned-playwright and it is really turning heads in London.
A co-production between the National, theatre company Fuel and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, that the play has been received so warmly during its London run is cause for celebration in West Yorkshire. Carrying the name of the Playhouse on the banner is a benefit to everyone when the five star reviews just keep coming.
Barber Shop Chronicles is based on conversations Ellams heard while researching and getting to hang out in barbershops from Africa, to London and in Leeds. Indeed, it was in Leeds at Stylistics barber shop in Chapeltown that Ellams found the inspiration for the central story he tells in his play. It’s a story Ellams has long wanted to tell. “Places where men gather to show emotions have, historically, been hostile to men of colour. You think about football stadiums, pubs, they are not places where men of colour are made to feel welcome. Being a black man in the stands of a football stadium is not often the most comfortable environment,” he says. “Yet we still look for reasons to congregate and places in which we can do that and one of those places is the barbershop. People come with drinks and food, to converse and ruminate together. There is also something about the environment that seems to do something to allow for honest and raw communication.
“When you are sitting in a barbershop chair and wrapped in a barber’s cloth, almost like being cocooned, it’s a return to an early self when you were wrapped in your mother’s arms. Then you have this man close to your neck with a blade in his hand, there is a level of trust and it allows men to open up and talk. It’s a really intricate, delicate space where things just seem to come out.”
Sitting and listening to these delicate, intimate and honest conversations helped inform Ellams’ script, lending it an air of authenticity and it is that, it seems, that is really speaking to the audiences of the sell out show.
What of that reaction.
“I remember at an early show myself and the actors stepped into the dock, a place in the dark where the actors gather at the side of the stage and we all just looked at each other with wide eyes, wondering what had happened,” he says.
What happened is that he has created a hit show – and he should get used, quickly, to talking to the likes of Jonathan Ross.
At West Yorkshire Playhouse, July 12 to 29. 0113 2137700.