A pious, studious young man in Accra, Ghana.
Each night, he rolls out a mattress and goes to sleep inside the shipping container that is his bedroom and his place of business – a barber shop. All day, he cuts men’s hair. Between clients he plays FIFA video games.
“His English wasn’t great,” recalls Inua Ellams, the Nigerian-born UK playwright, poet and performer. “But his football was Oxford rank. It was incredible.”
We are discussing Ellams’ field trip across Africa in which he interviewed men in barber shops in Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg, Lagos and Harare, about their relationships, love, family and politics.
We are perched on stools outside the Sydney Opera House on a hot spring day, gazing towards the Harbour Bridge. Dressed in a cheesecloth shirt, brown neck beads and a black cotton prayer-style hat, Ellams is bringing his latest play, Barber Shop Chronicles, to the Sydney Festival, then the Perth Festival, in the New Year. In it, he captures the conversations and moods of African barber shops over the course of one day.
Ellams asked questions in English, his sole language since arriving in London age 12 in 1996, his family escaping religious conflict in Nigeria, before becoming “the only black boy” for three years in a Dublin school. The hairdresser in the shipping container was patient and kind, Ellams recalls. “He had his whole life, his whole world, ahead of him. I’m 32, I sound like I’m 60, but he had his head screwed on right.”
Barber Shop Chronicles was created for National Theatre, London, where it is just about to have a return season.
The audience sits around the perimeter of the stage for the production, which comes to Sydney with its London cast. Before the show, you can volunteer for a consultation and pretend haircut. You can join in a dance before listening to draw-from-life male characters from Africa and the African diaspora speak their minds, both humorously and poignantly.
Ellams says barber shops frequented by African men in London “tend to be the few places we can gather, where we can be ourselves, and not feel there is a voyeuristic or critical eye, from non-black men looking at us, thinking ‘those Africans are too loud, they need to shut up’.” African men feel less welcome in football clubs and working men’s clubs in the UK, he says.
Ellams’ research raised some deep philosophical questions. For example, when he met a guy getting his hair cut in Kampala, Uganda, the encounter prompted Ellams to speculate on love, and if the idea of love in Western culture is too expansive and lacking nuance.
“He didn’t believe in romantic love, didn’t like romance, and didn’t love his girlfriend,” Ellams says. “He said he loved God. He believed in God and the love for orphans, homeless, refugees, etcetera, but romantic love he distrusted. He believed in God-given love; something that’s higher. He was completely dedicated to his wife, and they had two kids, but he didn’t love her.”
Ellams’ own self-described spirituality is a mix of Islam with Christianity and Buddhism, of Zen, Neo-spiritualism and attempts to write poetry, which he believes is a kind of religion.
His partner, who comes from Vietnam and whose heritage is Vietnamese-Chinese, works in virtual reality film. “She’s chaotic,” Ellams laughs. “You can’t write about her, because she’ll kill you if you do.”
Ellams has been self-employed as a writer since he was 19. His Nigerian family were comfortably middle class. His father was Muslim, later converting to Christianity to match the religion of his mother. The mixed marriage was rejected by some wider family members. From that point on, life in Nigeria became “kind of hairy”.
A report produced by the Christian charity Open Doors last year said Nigeria was the most dangerous place to be a Christian. Did his family experience persecution?
“When I think about the word ‘persecution’, I think about large bodies of people who make a decision to attack and belittle and undermine. [For us] it was more intimidation and aggression than direct persecution. So maybe yes, but not in grandiose terms.”
Ellams has visited Australia twice to present his one-man show An Evening with an Immigrant. As the sun beats down upon us – so hot that my mobile phone flashes a warning to place it in the shade – we reflect on how those who are fleeing persecution are treated under Australia’s policy of mandatory offshore detention.
“The more I read, the more I couldn’t believe this was a political directive, and that it was actualised,” Ellams says. “Human rights abuses were happening [in detention], and when the Australian government was told, their reaction was to make it illegal for people to talk about it.
“There is a level of shock, of deep embarrassment for humanity, that we could do this to one another. It’s bad enough when any country does that; it’s worse if Australia does that, given its history, given that everyone here, besides the Aboriginal people, are boat people.”