To playwright Jocelyn Bioh, the African hair braiders of Harlem are icons.
“They’re a large part of the economy of Harlem,” Bioh said of the Manhattan neighborhood. “Those are women-owned businesses, and for the most part led.”
Despite the ubiquity of the salons, most visible along 125th Street in Manhattan, Bioh saw little attention paid to the lives of braiders beyond their occupation.
Her play “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” debuted a few miles away from Harlem, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, on Oct. 3. She described it as a love letter to the West African immigrant women who power these cultural institutions.
The 90-minute production replicates the dynamic hustle found in a typical salon day. Customers trickle in and out of the chairs, relaying distinct visions for their hair. Braiders gossip — in jest and in envy — as they labor over their clients. Afrobeats fill the rare silences.
Hair is demonstrably an art and a craft shown through the cast’s fashionable ’dos including zig-zag cornrows, pink and blonde braids with puffs at the end, and microbraids.
To those acquainted with braiding salons, there are familiar sights: Shine ‘n Jam gel used to neatly part hair on the scalp, packs of braiding hair from preferred vendor X-Pression, and a dramatic Nollywood movie playing in the background.
The women of the salon are relatively satisfied (“If you have skill for hand, they will always be full,” one worker, Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) says), but as the story unfolds, Bioh shows the salon is a space of communion.
“They all came from something really different from what they thought they’d be doing,” Bioh said.
Salon owner Jaja (Somi Kakoma) and her U.S.-reared daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne) are undocumented. The precarity of Jaja’s position and that of undocumented immigrants at large arose as a topic to explore for Bioh in 2019, when she frequently encountered anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric on the news.
“It felt like there was only one face to the immigration story,” said the playwright, whose parents hail from Ghana. “I go to hair braiding shops all the time, since I was 4 or 5 years old, and I could see the fear in many of their eyes.”
She continued: “You can wake up one day and the end of your day can be completely different. All because you didn’t have paperwork.”
The American dream that immigrants seek often does sync with the reality of living in the United States, Bioh added.
Her writing is rooted in revealing these truths, which at times can be heartbreaking. But Bioh noted the truth can also be funny. Despite a heavy apex, the play centers the endearing camp and ridiculousness of African “aunties.”
One of the films Bioh recalled being formative to her comedic writing is Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America.”
Bioh said she “had never seen people speaking in dialects that were close, obviously not exact, but close to my family.”
Comics with immigrant roots have in recent years faced criticism for material that may make fun of their parents or culture — an inconspicuous line between comedy and mockery.
“Where there’s very little representation of us that exists, you do want to be really careful about what imagery and stories you’re putting out there,” Bioh said.
The world she builds around the braiding salon places emphasis on the complexity of the women, particularly in employing taboo subjects for African women.
Braider Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), for example, recounts an extramarital affair that led to the birth of her daughter. Her marriage was unfulfilling. The affair, however, and subsequent divorce that Miriam goes to lengths to obtain, is liberating.
The character may not have gone about things in the “right way,” Bioh said, “but she was really in search of joy.”
“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” bleeds into real life with a universal message: “We’re not all noble. We’re not always perfect. We’re not. We don’t always make the right decisions and rarely do we broadcast that stuff,” Bioh said.
Bioh said she hopes theatergoers depart with a changed perception of braiders and are able to see their sister, aunt, mother or grandmother in the women.
The play’s run has been extended through Nov. 19. At a time when Broadway continues to reckon with racial progress onstage and in the audiences, Bioh called the diverse turnout a “blessing.”
“All people in the diaspora have really showed up and have staked their claim and ownership in this story,” she said. “It’s a wonderful example of ‘If you build it, they will come.’”