Quick Chat: Inua Ellams Writer of Barber Shop Chronicles

ALT: What has it been like seeing the success of Barber Shop Chronicles celebrating two hundred and fifty shows or is it about to?

Inua: I think it has gone passed that now. It is good. I guess I’m happy that it is still touring, that it still brings in vitality to these aspects of the culture, it is still being shared and the audiences still find depth and relevance to you know, to everything, the issues the play discusses. So, it’s a good thing.

ALT: Why do you think Barber Shop resonates with audiences?

Inua: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s right for me to speculate. I should be happy about it still happening. I don’t know why it resonates with audiences. But I imagine this is because they have not seen something like this. That it is still new and it’s still fresh and it’s still familiar. That’s all I can imagine but I don’t know. I think maybe the critics are better placed to comment on that.

ALT: Well what inspired this story?

Inua: I was given a flyer about mental health teaching barbers how to recognize mental health issues in their clients and the project didn’t happen. And I just wanted to listen to conversations, and I began to hang around in barber shops.

ALT How long did it take for you to write the play?

Inua: I started working on it in 2013 and it went to the stage in 2017.

ALT:  When did you start writing, when did you just know that this was something were good at?

Inua: I started writing professionally in 2003 I had an interest literature when I was a kid. I did not know if I was good at it, I was just doing it.

ALT: Why are stories around masculinity, specifically black masculinity and immigration important to you?

Inua:  Because I’m an immigrant and I have three sisters; I grew up in a household where I was very much dominated by women and I never questioned their gender. I never questioned how I related to them. They were just the people closest to me. I never I thought I was being girly, I responded to them as they responded to me. I never responded to whether they were being boyish if they climbed trees or wanted to wrestle or tumble with me, we were just being ourselves. When I left and began to spend time with boys, I realized there is gender stereotypes which we are supposed to perform, society expected us to have ways of being male and ways of being female it just didn’t sit right with me. I wasn’t aware of it then, but the conversations began to grow and dominate much of Western culture.  And feminism, the plight of women in a patriarchal society. It was better articulated, I realized I could speak into that.

ALT: What was the angle you wanted to convey in Barber Shop?

Inua:  I researched the play by listening to the conversations that I heard in barber shops.  I just listened to what the men are talking about I had no direction and I didn’t try to impose my narrative on the conversations I just transcribed and edited them. So, what you see in the play is what the men I met were talking about. And they’re talking about fatherhood, brotherhood, the legacy of post-colonial Africa, leadership (in that context) personal relationships, mental health, the use of the N the word (it’s spelling and pronunciation) and all those kinds of issues.

ALT: Do you work very closely with the director of this production or do you sit back and let them take the helm?

Inua: Well when we were working on the show two years ago yes. Ever since then no.

ALT: Can you elaborates on saying when you came to England you became a black man?

Inua: I grew up in Nigeria being a man of color in Africa, a dark-skinned black man in Africa, in a black country means that you are the default. When you come to a country in which you’re a minority there is a description and adage to your manhood. So, I only become black when I am in a country where I was no longer the majority.  The same way when white men go to sub-Saharan countries, they are now white man whereas in England they are the default and they are just men that is what I meant?

ALT:  What makes a good story?

Inua: What makes a good story truth and beauty. Ok three things truth beauty and conflict, John Keats said that of poetry. Truth and beauty, complete honesty and beauty can take on many different forms, use of language and use of structure, using music and how stage craft brings the truth to the surface. And conflict there needs to be sh*t going wrong and someone trying to write that sh*t.

ALT: What are you working on next?

Inua: A play called Three Sisters which will be on at the National Theatre in December.

When: On until  Saturday 24 August 8pm (Doors 7.30pm)  – Matinees Thursday & Saturday 3pm (Doors 2.30pm)

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