In a scene in Jocelyn Bioh’s “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” a man rolls in a cart of items to sell to the clients and stylists at the titular salon. I recognized the character immediately and sat up, anticipating the joke. I wasn’t the only one: A small contingency of the audience at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater started snickering and laughing before he had even fully stepped onstage.
Those of us who have spent hours in salon chairs, amid the scent of coconut oil and the acrid aroma of bleach, moving in a circuit between stylist’s chair, sink and sweltering-hot dryer, know this vendor. In Bioh’s play he sells socks, and later another shows up selling jewelry. In the salons I went to as a child, I remember men peddling bootlegged movies and fashions to the clients with their hair wrapped or freshly sheened as they dug for cash in their purses. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” draws its comedy from this world — a world familiar to many Black women audience members like me.
Bioh’s salon isn’t an abstraction or callback; it’s a Black business set in modern-day Harlem. In other words, this new Broadway production, directed by Whitney White, proves the value of a work by Black artists that recreates the appearance, tone and feel of a contemporary Black space. It feels great, for once, to be in on the joke.
Bioh’s writing captures the quirks of a Black hair salon, and the characters who populate it: the unfortunate early-bird client who’s first to arrive when the shop’s late to open, the internal salon politics of stylists competing for clients, the inappropriate gossip, the sense of community. And always the one person — at Jaja’s, it’s a stylist sharply insulted by her colleague for her fish stew — who is only just now getting a chance to eat a late lunch of the most pungent food you can imagine.
But then I wondered: How many people in this Broadway audience share my familiarity? And if that number is small, then is it the production’s responsibility to educate those who don’t?
The production offered a talkback series called “A Part of Our Culture,” including discussions on the CROWN Act and salon life. At the talkback I attended, a former New York State assemblywoman, Tremaine S. Wright, recounted using her tenure to champion the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, and the celebrity stylist Susan Oludele (Hair by Susy), wearing a regal curtain of golden beaded braids, told the story of a client who spent $700 for a braided style but came back the next day distraught because her employer had demanded she take them out. Jamia Wilson, a writer-speaker and Random House executive editor whose locs curled into light brown tips, shared a story about a professor’s insistence that her hair would get in the way of her career.
Though there were occasional gasps of disbelief in the audience, I wasn’t surprised by these stories; I know firsthand how draining it can be to answer ignorant questions about my hair from non-Black people or swallow microaggressions and rude remarks.
I wore my hair braided all through elementary school. I remember a white student in a younger grade regularly greeting me by pointing to my head and calling out “spiders.” In middle school, when I switched to cornrows with extensions, a frenemy repeatedly asked about my fake “horse hair.” I got questions about the different hairstyle lengths and about how “clean” my braids were.
In high school, by which time I’d switched to relaxers, I found out that a boy I’d briefly had a crush on years earlier had been roasted for admitting to his buddy that he liked me. “But she looks like Whoopi Goldberg!” the buddy apparently said, though I neither had locs nor looked anything like Whoopi. But I was Black and had braids, and somehow, I understood, that meant I was less appealing.
In the talkback, Wilson said Bioh’s play is accessible to everyone. I don’t disagree with her, but I suspect there’s plenty the typical Broadway theatergoer may not know or might overlook.
I also don’t think it matters.
In recreating a Black Harlem salon with all of its faults and charms, “Jaja’s” is, like our own salons, giving a specific demographic a welcome, familiar space where we call the shots and drive the conversations.
When the clients of Jaja’s salon rose up from their chairs, one woman’s blonde Beyoncé braids cascading down her back, another woman’s Afro tidily plaited in playful zigzag cornrows, and a microbraids client’s TWA (teeny-weeny Afro) suddenly a veil of teeny-tiny jet-black braids, my audience cheered. I’ve never had a theater full of people cheer for me after hours of getting my braids done, but I’ve definitely felt like cheering, my stomach growling, my butt numb, my scalp tender and throbbing as I shakily stood up from the chair.
“I feel like I moved in for the day,” the microbraids client said just before leaving Jaja’s shop.
I know exactly how she feels.