While there have been many workplace plays, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is more animated and exuberant that most. Jocelyn Bioh’s first Broadway play and her first original play to be set in New York is both entertaining and diverting. Bioh’s Off Broadway hits, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play and Nollywood Dreams, both highly acclaimed, were set in parts of Africa, while her other New York production at the Delacorte in Central Park, Merry Wives, was an update of Shakespeare’s Falstaff comedy.
Jaja is quite different from Bioh’s other plays in that it is also very revealing about life in NYC for African immigrants. Directed by Whitney White who has piloted several major new Black plays in recent years, the play is funny, poignant and illustrative. The excellent and compelling cast of 11 includes six fine actors making their Broadway debuts. David Zinn’s detailed hair salon puts every inch of Jaja’s Harlem African Hair Braiding parlor on stage down to the last braid and bobby pin.
The play covers one day from 9 AM to 9 PM in the lives of the hair braiders at Jaja’s salon though we see little of her as this is her wedding day to her long-time fiancé Steven. It is her 18-year-old daughter Marie, valedictorian of her high school class and a would-be writer, who opens the shop and runs the day to day logistics. Very quickly we find out the pecking order among the staff and who does not get along with whom, while some like Miriam, the recent employee from Sierra Leone, saving to bring over her five year old daughter, and Ndidi, a Nigerian, who is waiting for her shop to reopen after a fire, would like to just do their work in peace. Then there are those like Bea (pronounced “Bee,”) a Ghanaian, who has been in the shop longest, and Aminata, from Senegal, who is having romantic problems with her ne’er-do-well husband James, who both thrive on conflict and gossip.
Sharp-tongued Bea quickly accuses Ndidi of stealing her customer though her own sharp tongue and lackadaisical manner seem to have a lot to do with the defections. She also predicts that Jaja’s fiancé is two-timing her. Moody Aminata wants the others to stay out of her business over her relationship with her promiscuous husband who she has currently kicked out. Miriam has one customer Jennifer all day, while the others have various patrons over the course of the 12 hours. We not only watch them work but we learn a good deal about the art of braiding and what is required.
The play is a comedy drama until the last ten minutes when it turns into something quite different. We suddenly realize they all may be illegal immigrants living on the edge. This is not adequately prepared for but does not damage the play too much; however, it does stick out like a shift in tone. Nevertheless, the play is very realistic with an authentic African playlist of new songs in each of the play’s six scenes as well as a (fictional) scene from a Nollywood television series. Zinn’s remarkable beauty parlor with its colorful pink walls also includes a television set high up which announces the time of each sequence as Jiyoun Chang’s lighting outside the shop windows shifts from morning till night. Not only are Dede Ayite’s costumes festive and many hued, they are also representative of both the different parts of Africa and the different characters’ personalities. Most important to this play is Nikiya Mathis’ multitude of hair and wig designs for both the customers and the beauticians.
The entire cast is memorable with three of the actors playing multiple roles. As 18-year-old Marie, Dominique Thorne is wise beyond her years as well as the shop’s peacemaker. Brittany Adebumola as mid-20’s Miriam first seems quiet and shy but in telling her personal story reveals that she is quite a feisty feminist. Much of the humor is the work of Zenzi Williams’ Bea who not only cannot hold her tongue but is usually proved right. Nana Mensah’s Aminata, nicknamed Ami, is the moodiest one, going through many states in the course of the day. Her scenes with her husband show how he has her wrapped around his little finger but she would deny it.
As Ndidi, Maechi Aharanwa, the most successful of the braiders, is a spitfire who gives as good as she gets. Her clothing makes her look the youngest though she is a thorough professional who is popular among the clients. Somi Kakoma’s late appearance as the owner Jaja in an elaborate white African wedding gown appears to be a romantic idealist who we have heard is pursuing her version of the American dream. As the only customer whose braiding takes all day, Rachel Christopher as journalist/editor Jennifer is a good listener and a congenial presence.
Kalyne Coleman and Lakisha May demonstrate their versatility each playing three patrons. May is most memorable as the obnoxious, entitled Vanessa who promptly falls asleep when once she has negotiated her hairdo. May’s customers are a bit more muted and reserved but her Chrissy is amusing as a woman whose one desire is to look exactly like Beyoncé. Playing all the men, Michael Oloyede runs the gamut of four characters from the flirtatious and manipulative James (Aminata’s estranged husband) to the compassionate and caring DVD Man who arrives with bad news that must be dealt with.
Jocelyn Bioh whose career continues on an upper trajectory has a potential hit with Jaja’s African Hair Braiding which is both funny and serious, revealing and surprising. Whitney White has done wonders with the cast of 11 who play 17 characters, all of whom will stay with you long after you have left the theater. The design team has been particularly fine in making this a colorful ethnic experience that puts real life on the stage. So much goes on in the course of the play that it feels like it is a good deal longer than its actually 90 minutes.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding (November 5, 2023)
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-230-6200 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission