Too many people don’t value the workers—perhaps not intentionally, but they go through their day assuming that the help and services afforded by them are automatically available. Jocelyn Bioh knows better. In her new play, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, she weaves a beautiful tapestry of hard-working, immigrant women, their daily struggles, and the conflicts between themselves.
David Zinn’s hugely impressive set appears, at first, to be a modest street scene in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Marie (Dominque Thorne) and Miriam (Brittany Adebumola) meet outside Jaja’s shop. It quickly transforms into what could well be a long-established hair braiding shop, chock full of accessories, detail, and vibrant lives.
Jaja (Somi Kakoma) , of course, is the matron of the shop—and Marie’s mother. Marie has just graduated from college and has her sights set on higher ground than running the business. Alas, this is her current lot. Tongues are wagging in the shop about Jaja’s pending nuptials. She will soon be wed to Steven, a white landlord who arouses the suspicions of Marie—and some of the shop’s clientele.
A colorful array of characters inhabit the shop and Bioh creates an important commentary on how much respect we give—or do not give—to immigrants, depending on where they come from. It’s a crucial dialogue that could not be timelier given the current number of migrants who have arrived in New York in recent months. Yet Bioh never proselytizes. In the spirit of a Norman Lear sitcom, she alerts us to the own ridiculousness of our biases and prejudice.
Whitney White directs this brisk comedy-drama that cements Bioh as one of the most insightful and heartfelt contemporary playwrights.
Bioh’s note in the program pays homage to her heroes: “craftswomen and artists with beautiful, gifted and skilled hands.” Her sentiment seems inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who summed it up this way:
“You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.”
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is now on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th between 8th and Broadway, NYC) through November 19th. For tickets, click here