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jaja's african hair braiding

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding At Manhattan Theatre Club

These days White people get lectured a fair amount about the dos and don’ts  of how they should approach Black women’s hair. Thanks to Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Jocelyn Bioh’s hit comedy at Manhattan Theatre Company, curious White folk have an opportunity to indulge their curiosity at length.

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding serves up a day in the life of the eponymous Harlem shop in which a colorful assortment of immigrants from several West African countries offer their expertise to a clientele of mostly American born African-American women eager to sport the latest styles. Jaja offers these strivers, whose legal immigration status may be somewhat iffy, a place to ply their trade and make a living as independent contractors. They set their own prices and Jaja takes a cut.

There’s a theme rather than a plot in Bioh’s play and one that makes a powerful statement about America’s often schizophrenic attitude towards immigration, especially when it involves people from what a certain megalomaniac likes to refer to as “s**thole countries.” But that comes later.

For most of its 90 minute, intermissionless running time Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is a richly observed and location specific slice of life comedy that offers the vicarious pleasure of immersing oneself in an ethnic stew that might be unfamiliar but that savors of the heady aroma of shared humanity.

As in beloved sitcoms like “Taxi” and “Cheers,” the major draw of Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is the quirky cast of hair stylists and customers who inhabit this fictional slice of Harlem life.

Marie (Dominique Thorne), Jaja’s teenaged daughter, manages the shop; despite being a high school valedictorian her college aspirations are on hold because she is an illegal. Bea (Zenzi Williams) is the most senior of the braiders who talks a lot about “when I open my shop” but whose customers seem to be deserting her for the irrepressible Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), a more nimble braider.

Aminata (Nana Mensah), a quiet and long-suffering woman saddled with a husband who hits her up for money and runs around with other women. Miriam (Brittany Adebumola) has left behind a daughter in Sierra Leone.

Men make brief visits to this ladies’ club to sell socks or jewelry, to cadge money, or to bear sad tidings. All of them are played by Michael Oloyede who does a terrific job of quadrupling.

Jaja herself (Somi Kakoma) makes a smashing appearance late in the play to deliver a passionate rant about the injustices of American immigration policy. It’s a bit heavy handed in the writing, but nonetheless heartfelt and bang on the money.

In some ways, the most important performer in Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is Nikiya Mathis who handled hair and wig design. Her contributions elicited whoops of delight from the audience.

For her part, director Whitney White does an excellent job of keeping the stew simmering. David Zinn has contributed a set that opens on a drab Harlem street front and then revolves to reveal Jaja’s wonderfully colorful salon, eliciting well deserved applause. Dede Ayite’s costumes and Jiyoun Chang’s lighting struck me as just right.

Everyone in the company, many of them making their Broadway debuts, is excellent, but I was especially taken by the feisty Zenzi Williams’ Bea and by Brittany Adebumola’s Miriam, who has a lovely set piece in which she reveals the pain of dislocation behind the brave face.

While I am not the world’s best prognosticator, I have a feeling that Bioh’s hilarious Jaja’s African Hair Braiding will figure prominently when Tony nominations are announced.

Footnote: I saw Jaja’s African Hair Braiding thanks to The League of Live Stream Theater, which as the name suggests offers those far from the bright lights of Broadway (or other theatres around the country) a chance to see plays live as they are being performed. Think of it as Zoom for show biz.

Live streaming is offered only for a limited time, during the final few days of a play’s run on the theory (I’m guessing) that this will not cannibalize box office sales. The price is $69, which if you’ve been to Broadway lately you will recognize as a bargain, especially considering that several people can gather to see the show.

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding will run (and be live streamed) through November 19, 2023 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Here’s the link. 

Be sure to sign up for The League of Live Stream Theater’s newsletter to be alerted to future offerings.

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