LONDON — A few years ago, Broadway etiquette mavens were scandalized when an audience member plugged in his phone onstage at “Hand to God.” But when a teenage girl felt a similar impulse at “Barber Shop Chronicles” at the National Theater here, the playwright, Inua Ellams, found it heartening. To him, it was proof of the production’s welcoming air, inviting spectators onstage before the show to get fake haircuts from the cast.
“This was the first time she had come to the National Theater,” Ellams, 35, recalled in a recent interview there. “But she felt so comfortable coming into a space as white, as middle class as this, that she asked one of the actors if she could charge her phone using the equipment on the set. And he said yeah. So for the whole show, her phone was there.”
Such an atmosphere of cordial reception is no small thing to Ellams, a Londoner who was 12 when he left Nigeria with his family and 18 when they settled in Britain, where he has yet to be granted citizenship. He’s a poet as well as a playwright, and he had his first stage hit in 2017 with “Barber Shop Chronicles,” which makes its New York debut on Tuesday at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.
The play, which is based on recordings Ellams made of men talking in barbershops in London and five other cities in African nations, is infused with music and movement. It was critically lauded during its two runs at the National — where his latest work, an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” set during the Nigerian civil war, also begins performances on Tuesday. In between rehearsals for that show, he sat down to talk about “Barber Shop Chronicles.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It’s where men hang out. Barbershops here serve a particular purpose in that there are not many places where black men can gather in large numbers without scrutiny from the police. Quite a few years ago, there was this “sus” law, which meant that the government could stop black men if two or three were gathered and just ask them to move on.
Does that law still exist?
They have stop-and-search laws, which are effectively the same thing. So barbershops serve as spaces where black men can go, and it’s just themselves, around themselves, being themselves. But the reason I was introduced to them was, a girl I was dating gave me this flyer, which was to teach barbers about counseling — how to notice mental health issues in the clients and offer advice. Because there’s such a stigma among African and Caribbean communities about mental health anyway. There isn’t even a word for it in most of our indigenous languages.
Hadn’t you been going to barbershops?
When I left Nigeria in 1996 and moved over here with my parents, money became really tight in our family, so my father and I could no longer afford to go to barbershops. Because I’m such a workaholic, the only way I could legitimize going back to one was to make it into a project, thinking this is a public health issue that I’m writing about. Instead I uncovered this whole world that I forgot existed.
When you write a play about that space, you are effectively inviting other people into it. Why?
For the longest time, the ways in which blackness has been perceived has been from those who control the narratives in this country and the Western Hemisphere. Most of those depictions of us have been negative. By inviting the world into our own space, on our own terms, we can control the narrative. We can be who we are.
It is a joyous play, yet you’re talking about really serious, fundamental issues.
Isn’t that how humanity has been able to survive thus far? By trying to beautify the ugliest parts of ourselves, to try and make it digestible so we can laugh our pain away? But it’s also what I found. The men were just laughing whilst talking about really crazy issues. I had one rule: If a topic comes up three times in three different countries, then it has to go into the play.
What came up three times?
Conversations about leadership. Relationships with our loved ones. Legacy of language and the politics of that; in Nigeria, it was about pidgin English. We discussed tribal politics. We discussed masculinity itself — what it meant to be a black man. Father and sons. Immigration and the legacy of that is definitely discussed throughout the entire play.
Poetry came first for you, then theater?
Yeah. I started performing poetry everywhere, and I did it a little bit too much. Things came to a head when I was at the Glastonbury Festival. It was one of those horrid Glastonburys where there’s just rain and thunderstorms and flooding from the first day. I remember trying to read poems in this tent, which was caught in the wind, and it was rocking and shaking, and the audience were drunk or high, or both. So I came back to London intending to only work in places where audience came to sit quietly and be told stories. That’s why I moved into theater.
Were you surprised when “Barber Shop Chronicles” became a hit?
We were all surprised: the director, the entire cast. 2017 was really horrific. Every other day there was a black man who had been killed by American police, and we just saw those images of dead bodies, and the same narrative was being pumped about “He wasn’t an angel.” What I think audiences were screaming out for were shows that showed black men as they were. We’re entirely complex beings, and the play just showed the complexity without any apology at all. And I think that’s why it worked, and why it continues to work.
Do you think of yourself as British? Nigerian? Citizen of the world?
When I’m in Nigeria, they let me know I’m not Nigerian. I walk through markets, and they can smell it off me. They can see it in how I walk. Here, I can be Nigerian amongst the diasporans. But I am definitely not British. I don’t have a British passport, and the British public won’t let me ever consider that I am British — because of things like Brexit, because of things like racism. If anything, I think I am a citizen of the world. Which, according to Theresa May, means I don’t belong anywhere. And I’m sort of O.K. with that, I think?
Barber Shop Chronicles
Tuesday through Sunday at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.
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