Nothing says comedy to me like sizzling pink, and pink doesn’t get a lot hotter than the pink of the home curtain that greets you at first of “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” by Jocelyn Bioh. Within the pale and staid Samuel J. Friedman Theater, a fuchsia drop depicting dozens of elaborately woven hairstyles — micro braids, cornrows, “kinky twists” and extra — tells you, together with the bouncy Afro-pop music, to arrange for laughter.
That may are available in abundance, however don’t within the meantime ignore Jaja’s storefront: grey and dirty and contradicting the pink. With its roll-up grille totally locked down, it’s telling you one thing too.
What that’s, Bioh doesn’t reveal till fairly late — virtually too late for the nice of this in any other case riotously humorous office comedy set in prepandemic, mid-Trump Harlem. A sort of “Cheers” or “Metal Magnolias” for at the moment, “Jaja’s” is so profitable at promoting the upbeat pluck and sharp-tongued sisterhood of its West African immigrants that the hasty dramatization of their collateral sacrifice feels a bit like a spinach dessert.
Irrespective of: The primary 80 minutes of the 90-minute play, which opened on Tuesday in a Manhattan Theater Membership manufacturing, are a buffet of delights. Even David Zinn’s set for the wonder store’s inside, as soon as the grate is unlocked and lifted, receives entrance applause. From that second on, the director, Whitney White, retains the stage activated and the tales simmering at a contented bubble.
Not like the Ghanaian personal college college students in Bioh’s “Faculty Women; or, the African Imply Women Play” and the star-struck Nigerians in her “Nollywood Goals,” the stylists at Jaja’s are impartial contractors. I don’t simply imply financially, although they negotiate their costs privately and pay Jaja a reduce. Additionally they function independently as dramatic figures, their plots popping up for some time, momentarily intersecting with the others’, then piping right down to make room for the following.
That’s superb when the plots and intersections are so pleasant. 5 ladies work on the salon within the sizzling summer time of 2019, not counting Jaja’s 18-year-old daughter, Marie (Dominique Thorne), who runs the store’s day-to-day operations. It’s she who lifts the grate and appears to shoulder the heaviest burdens. Her hopes for school, and a profession as a author, hold by a thread of false papers.
Romance and dominance are the primary considerations of the others. As her title suggests, Bea (Zenzi Williams) is the queen, at the very least when Jaja will not be round, and stirs up drama from an overdeveloped sense of private entitlement. “Once I get my store, there gained’t be any consuming of smelly meals like this,” she snarks at her buddy Aminata, innocently having fun with fish stew.
In the present day Bea is very infuriated as a result of she believes that Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), a youthful, sooner braider, is stealing her purchasers. In the meantime — and the adverb is apt as a result of the subplots typically echo the West African cleaning soap operas the ladies watch on the salon’s tv — Aminata (Nana Mensah) is fuming over her scoundrelly husband, who wheedles her out of her hard-earned cash and spends it on different ladies. Sweeter and quieter and extra self-contained, Miriam (Brittany Adebumola) steadily reveals one other facet as she tells a consumer what she gladly escaped, and but regrets leaving, in Sierra Leone.
The issue of males is a typical theme: Even Jaja (Somi Kakoma), who ultimately makes a spectacular look, is caught up in what could or is probably not a green-card marriage rip-off with an area white landlord. However aside from Aminata’s husband, the boys we truly meet — all performed by Michael Oloyede in properly distinguished cameos — are sort and cheerful, hawking socks, jewellery, DVDs and affection.
Form and cheerful will not be the case with all of the purchasers. (There are seven, performed by three actors.) One is so impolite simply coming into the store that the braiders, normally hungry for enterprise, fake to be booked. One other consumer calls for to look precisely like Beyoncé for her birthday; one other is a loud talker. One largely eats whereas Bea refreshes her elaborate do, a Strawberry Knotless Afro-Pop Bob. And Jennifer (Rachel Christopher) sits patiently in Miriam’s chair all through, receiving lengthy micro braids that take 12 hours and fingers of metal.
By no means actually forging these bits right into a single narrative, Bioh makes comedian music of them, typically with the set-it-up-now, pay-it-off-later strategy and typically with a scrapper’s punch-feint-return. With out White’s orchestration of the rhythm — and the right timing of the forged, most of them making Broadway debuts — I can’t think about this working. Nor wouldn’t it be as pleasant with out Dede Ayite’s sociologically meticulous costumes or the brilliance of the title characters. And by “title characters” I after all imply the hairstyles, rendered in earlier than, throughout and after incarnations by Nikiya Mathis’s wigs, which appear to be holding a dialog of their very own.
If your entire play had been nothing however byplay — the ladies in each other’s hair each figuratively and actually — I might not complain. Translating a preferred style to a brand new milieu and stocking it with characters unfamiliar to most American theatergoers, as Bioh did in “Faculty Women” as nicely, is refreshing sufficient when crafted so neatly.
However as a substitute she has seen match, once more as in “Faculty Women,” to deepen and darken the story whereas offering a bang of exercise on the finish. Although abrupt and insufficiently resolved, it doesn’t come from nowhere. By the final of the play’s six scenes, all the ladies, however particularly Jaja and her daughter, have one thing to concern from a president who has lately referred to some African nations with a disparaging vulgarism and complained that Nigerians allowed to enter america would by no means return.
“OK, so that you need me to go? Positive, I’ll go,” Jaja exclaims witheringly, in what looks as if a direct response. “However when would you like me to depart? Earlier than or after I elevate your youngsters? Or clear your own home? Or cook dinner your meals? Or braid your hair so that you look nice-nice earlier than you go in your seaside trip? ‘Oh please miss. Are you able to give me the Bo Derek hair please?’”
“Jaja’s” is stuffed with such treasurable moments, when the drama feels tightly woven with the comedy. And if the weave frays a bit on the finish, what doesn’t? Just like the Strawberry Knotless Afro-Pop Bob, it’s nonetheless a fantastic look.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding
By way of Nov. 5 on the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Operating time: 1 hour half-hour.
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