May 23, 2024

Hair is sacred to Black women, as are the institutions that shift and mold our tresses, styling them for seasons and occasions. Beauty salons are staples in the Black community, but the braiding shop is a particular type of pillar that draws in Black women and femmes from across the diaspora to one central location. Sitting for hours or even a whole day getting their hair neatly tucked into box braids or cornrows, the experiences and expectations of customers become interwoven with the lives of the ladies who work there.

Jocelyn Bioh‘s “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” now on Broadway, opens in Harlem on a steaming July morning. Marie (Dominique Thorne), a frazzled recent high school graduate, walks up to her mother’s braiding shop to open it for the day. Marching toward the shop’s gate, she shleps a jumbo tote bag full of braiding hair over her shoulder and the dreams and wishes she and her mother have for her in her heart. 

Born in Senegal, Marie has called Harlem home for nearly a decade and a half. However, a lack of immigration papers and the expensive requirements of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have stalled her plans for university. After a quick rundown of her chaotic morning, Marie opens the shop. The sweet-hearted braider Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), who dreams of bringing her young daughter to America from Sierra Leone, follows on Marie’s heels. As the women begin setting up, the audience learns that this isn’t just another summer day. It’s Jaja’s (Somi Kakoma) wedding day. Through her marriage, the shop owner hopes to solidify American citizenship for herself and Marie.  

Joining Marie and Miraim are Aminata (Nanah Mensah), who is holding on to the fragments of her marriage; Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), the fun-loving Nigerian braider who’s been accused of stealing clients; and Bea (Zenzi Williams), the braider whose been at Jaja’s since it opened a decade ago, and whose dreams of her own shop remain out of reach. 

The beauty of “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is the play’s ability to bring life to a seemingly mundane space. On the set designed by David Zinn, the salon’s walls are painted a deep, robust pink, with bags of braiding hair hanging along the walls. The television screen propped near the ceiling displays Afrobeats music videos or a Nollywood movie more enticing than anything seen in the theaters recently. Carts full of combs, braiding gel and oil sheen sliding over the floor feel familiar to any Black woman who has spent a good portion of her life in those worn leather chairs. Still, the play moves beyond the intricate hairstyles—though many are displayed here (the hair and wig design is by Nikiya Mathis)—to highlight the women at the heart of these shops. These are women boasting bold laughs and heavy hearts, who twist and manipulate hair until their fingers swell from the effort. 

Throughout the 90-minute runtime, there are lighthearted moments between the braiders, especially after a jewelry man (Michael Oloyede), who has a crush on Ndidi, enters the shop and leaves all the ladies in a fit of giggles. Viewers are eventually introduced to Jaja, who visits the shop to show off her bridal gown—a celebratory moment resulting in a money dance. As the day presses forward, several customers with varied requests and attitudes come in and out of Jaja’s doors, bringing their gripes and joys into the space. With her sharp tongue and rude demeanor, one particularly vicious customer showcases just another layer of animosity the braiders must confront daily in a world that already doesn’t respect them.

Director Whitney White presents the ecosystem of the braiding shop without extensive explanation. It’s either a place you know intimately or have never encountered. In presenting this intimate space, without frill or excessive polish, she exposes the full scope of Black womanhood with its joys, delights, pains and sorrows as we experience them daily. Though the rapid changes in tone often feel jarring, the realism that bursts through these scenes gives “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” its vibrancy.

The actresses are excellent, including Thorne, who portrays a young woman desperate to make her mother proud despite their differences. The trifecta of Adebumola, Mensah and Williams ground the play in the cadence and rhythms of West African womanhood and customs. As much as there is love between the women, there is pain. From gentle fussing to full-out fights elevated by jealousy and gossiping, each woman carries their wounds, expectations and disappointments. Cramped in a shop day after day, there is often nowhere else for these hurts to go, so they are hurled toward one another. While strained romantic relationships and finances are significant components of arguments, the stress of being an immigrant in America sits centrally in “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.” 

There is a lot of talk these days about Black women leaning into softness, and while it’s a beautiful sentiment for many and even achievable for some, it’s not remotely realistic for others. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” celebrates business owners like Jaja and the ladies who work for her. It’s also a portrait that illustrates everything it takes for Black women, especially immigrants, to survive in this country. Amid the sacrifices and the tears, the play showcases the community these women build among themselves and how they care for each other when no one else will. 

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