Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is coming to Broadway. Drama Desk Award-winning Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh takes us into the bustling world of hair braiding in Harlem, New York, with a lively group of West African immigrant hair braiders and their eclectic clientele.
Directed by Obie winner Whitney White, the cast includes Brittany Adebumola, Maechi Aharanwa, Rachel Christopher, Kalyne Coleman, Somi Kakoma, Lakisha May, Nana Mensah, Michael Oloyede, Dominique Thorne and Zenzi Williams.
EBONY spoke with Bioh and White to learn about the upcoming production and peep their best hair braiding tales.
EBONY: Jocelyn, what inspired you to write Jaja’s African Hair Braiding?
Jocelyn Bioh: I’ve probably, cumulatively, spent 10 years of my life in a hair braiding shop. And I’ve seen so many different lives, met so many different women and learned so many things about myself and our culture in the hair braiding shop. I just wanted to write a love letter to the people, the vibe and the energy in this space. It’s so specific to Black women, and I wanted to create a space for us. The fact that it will be on a Broadway stage is the best cherry on the cake.
Whitney, how did you approach directing this manuscript?
Whitney White: I knew I wanted to convey just an incredible vivacious sense of life because braiding shops are vivid and bold like any intimate space. And when you go to get your hair braided, you’re usually there for a few hours. You can see all kinds of things over the course of a day. It’s like seeing a little planet in one room. I wanted to put that feeling on the stage of how alive and surprising those spaces can be.
What’s the most memorable situation you’ve been in when you’ve gotten your hair done?
Bioh: I got married a year ago, and I wanted my hair in this beautiful style that my hair-braiding lady Nasi, who I love, does. She got into a fight with another customer who thought she had sideswiped her. I thought they were about to get into boxing in that hair-braiding shop. I begged her not to have an altercation because I needed my braids to look good for my wedding day (laughs).
White: Most hair braiding shops are run by women and there’s a lot of cash money on site. I remember somebody tried to come in to harass the women and the way the women banded together and we’re like, “Sir, not today,” was epic. They had no other way to defend themselves other than their strength. And this guy realized he’s not messing with these women today. It was very exciting to watch.
What message do you want to convey about these African women entrepreneurs who may just be seen as hair braiders?
It’s about humanizing people. We’ve all passed that woman in Harlem or Brooklyn, New York, standing on the street asking if you want to get your hair braided. You pass by and may not even think about their lives. I’m a first-generation Ghanaian, and this is about humanizing the immigrant experience and the Black woman’s experience. As far as we’ve come, we still have so much more to go.
White: Jocelyn just put it perfectly: humanizing the immigrant experience and the Black female experience in a thrilling, hilarious way. That’s what you get with Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding opens today for previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City.