It’s not often that I get to see plays and it’s even more rare that I get to see plays with an entirely Black cast. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” managed to merge the two worlds for a timely yet perpetual story that explores everything from love to friendship, and even immigration in the United States. The best part of all? This play is set entirely in a Harlem hair salon.
Spanning just one day, the story gives viewers an intimate look at the magic that is a Black braiding shop. Between quick digs from the stylists about stealing each other’s customers and stories reminiscing about the past, playwright Jocelyn Bioh managed to create a space that is so uniquely reflective of the Black immigrant experience that I felt like I was looking at a “hair day” in my own life.
From the random man popping in to sell products to the customer who immediately fell asleep in the salon chair, as I watched the play, it highlighted to me something I already knew and had personally experienced, yet it was still eye-opening to see acted out so plainly. Hair salons have always been a safe space for Black women. It’s a one-stop shop to find community, be introduced to new foods and cultures, and simply exist in a space where you don’t have to apologize for the texture of your hair or how you present yourself.
Whether it’s braids, extensions, perms, or another look, hairstyling is a pillar of opportunity for many Black immigrants; a way to take the skills that you picked up colloquially in your home countries and make a living in a new one. In that way, it also serves as the common thread that binds every member of the diaspora together, in turn becoming an experience that is not only necessary but communal in nature.
Hair has and will likely always be revered in Black culture. Thousands of years ago, styles like cornrows were used to communicate marital status and social positioning in certain parts of Africa, and though these hairstyles have evolved present day, they are still used to communicate who you are to the world. Whether it’s a beaded updo like the one worn by Aminata or Miriam’s gorgeous cornrow twists, these intricate hairstyles would never lead you to believe that the former character is navigating a less-than-healthy marriage or that the latter is pining for a love that she’s not exactly sure will work out — and that’s exactly what they’re meant to do. The old adage “never look like what you’re going through,” is one that Black people have lived by for centuries in the face of a society that has tried endlessly to not only police the way they look, but their very existence. The Black braiding shop remains a respite to not only gather in the community but to allow us to face the world as our best, most polished selves.
“Jajas African Hair Braiding” has managed, in just 90 minutes, to spotlight some of the ways that beauty can be a binding force regardless of cultural background. As a beauty editor, this was something I knew. As a 26-year-old immigrant who sometimes is still trying to find the words to detail her experiences in this country, this play has helped me realize that exploring the Black beauty culture of New York City is another avenue for finding my people. These experiences of hunting down hair stores, listening to shop gossip, and complaining about how many braids we thought we had left are universally ours. So, while “home” can feel like a distant land sometimes, it’s also here, with people who have had the same experiences around beauty and hairstyling as I have. That is something that I am endlessly grateful for.