JAJA’S AFRICAN HAIR BRAIDING an Unbridled Joy — Review
Jocelyn Bioh is a playwright in whose stories you just want to soak for a while. They have a plot, sure, like Nollywood Dreams; or conflict, like School Girls; but mostly, they’re exercises in world-building – in spending time with a group of people and hearing them bounce Bioh’s joyous words around their richly observed environments. Her Broadway debut, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding at MTC’s Friedman Theatre, presents the deluxe version of all her gifts, in a lively production cheerfully directed by Whitney White as a hangout you never want to leave.
And to leave is what these women, despite their bubbly buoyancy, fear most: Jaja's Harlem salon – rendered in David Zinn’s stunner of a set – employs more than a few West African first- or second-generation immigrants with shaky naturalization statuses. The owner (Somi Kakoma), herself, is speeding into a marriage of convenience to lock in her claim toward the American Dream. Her high school valedictorian daughter, Marie (Dominique Thorne), is similarly concerned about her ability to succeed now that her run of financial luck, thanks to a white family’s vouching for her entrance into an elite private school, has ended.
But despite stylist Bea’s (Zenzi Williams) poignant and pessimistic complaints – among many – that Marie and her fellow workers trust too deeply in their fair-skinned compatriots fairweather help, Jaja’s is not a play that dwells on the tragic plight of the immigrant.
Though their socioeconomic realities are never far from their minds, the play’s 17 characters – played by nine women, three comically cycling through different customers, and Michael Oloyede as a cavalcade of men – could give less of a shit about what white people are doing.
They, and us, are more concerned with Nikiya Mathis’ spectacular wigs, and the way Lakisha May, playing a noisy businesswoman, conjures up hilarious bob-ography as she gossips into her phone. Or how Dede Ayite’s personality-defining costumes look on salon newcomer Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) as she lip-syncs a scene from the Nollywood movie playing on the store’s TV.
Bioh, a keen and gracious observer of the role media plays in the non-American mentality, uses that television to both deliver plot devices and comment, as she does, on the role American and Americanized media play in the non-American mentality. An ad for a community college chimes in to prompt a discussion of Marie’s future; one of Nigeria’s delirious Beyoncé films, at one point, pops up.
Through tensions and extensions, Bioh’s day-in-the-life play never loses its comedic potency, and its ensemble shines throughout. When Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), an aspiring journalist who walks in at open to get micro-braids, everyone deflates with knowingly exhausted chagrin. By the time she leaves, almost at close, she, and us, can hardly believe it’s time to go.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is in performance through November 5, 2023 at the Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.