'Jaja's African Hair Braiding' review — vibrant play spotlights the immigrant experience
Read our four-star review of Jaja's African Hair Braiding, a world-premiere play from Jocelyn Bioh, currently on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
In Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, playwright Jocelyn Bioh presents characters who are sort of foils to the hairstyles they wear. Many of the braiders and customers in the title salon sport various protective styles, which risk causing hair loss long-term but temporarily protect hair from the elements. The women in this world-premiere play may make each other want to pull their hair out daily, but in the long run, they’ll tie themselves in knots to protect a sister.
You might not know it at first. These women are work friends, so there's as much camaraderie over the shared experience of being working-class African immigrant women as there is bickering and bantering over the daily grind. Each braider has a chair at Jaja's and is fiercely protective of it — a longtime customer switching braiders is a massive betrayal.
Bioh knows how to write sharp banter between women — she made her name with a work titled School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, after all — and capture a diverse range of backgrounds and personalities in her ensembles. The title Jaja and her daughter, Marie, are Senegalese women with big dreams. Nigerian Ndidi can recite every word of the soap opera on TV. Ghanaian Bea, a longtime employee, is the only one who resists her amusing displays out of resentment. Senegalese Aminata, usually her sidekick, is currently more preoccupied with her own marriage troubles to get involved. Sierra Leonean Miriam, in contrast, dreams of rekindling a romance with a man back home. The cast turns in uniformly vibrant performances, including the three actresses who play seven total customers between them and the one male actor (Michael Oloyede) as various minor characters.
Neither the script nor Whitney White's direction can entirely keep up with all the arcs at play, though — to get through it all, they tend to focus on unraveling one character at a time, so we connect with each woman only to lose her in the shuffle. Miriam (a lovely Brittany Adebumola), comes the closest to surmounting this, with subtle, early nods to her lover planting the seeds for the later reveal of her full backstory.
So when Bioh's workplace comedy suddenly becomes a high-stakes drama that rocks all the braiders, it's jarring. And yet, that's perhaps the most accurate way Bioh could have written this story. Looming beneath the women's everyday challenges is their uncertain immigration status, and it only takes one misstep for those fears to take center stage. Bea (a commanding Zenzi Williams) reveals herself as Bioh's best-written character when she puts aside her bitterness to help the others when it matters.
And at the end of the day, despite some narrative clunkiness, Jaja offers plenty to celebrate. It's the Broadway debut of Bioh as a writer, White as a director, and six of the eight cast members. It's a passionate portrayal of Black womanhood in Harlem and all the diverse experiences that encompasses. And it's a love letter to the artistry of hair braiding, a millennia-old form of artistry that allows its participants to express themselves even as they transform themselves. Much like theatre.
Photo credit: Nana Mensah, Lakisha May, Maechi Aharanwa, and Kalyne Coleman in Jaja's African Hair Braiding. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
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