Immigration takes root inside ‘JAJA’s African Hairbraiding Salon’

Gebre Peddie.
Gebre Peddie.
Photo by Vinette K. Pryce

Harlem, the mecca for beauteous weaves, micro, box braids, twists and cornrows earned a reputation for transforming ordinary hairstyles into cultural expressions of art when West African immigrants claimed territorial rights to shops uptown Manhattan.

Often housed inside leased spaces, landlords capitalized on an influx of African immigrants willing to sublet pop-up shops in order to ply their trade.

Braiders toiled long hours in order to weave extensions and stylish coifs that expresses cultural pride and aesthetically appealing, long-lasting hairstyles. Before long, those shops attracted customers who traveled from afar to capitalize on the specialized novelty.

That celebrities Janet Jackson, Bo Derek and Beyonce popularized the still trendy daily routine is now a hilarious Broadway production which opened recently.

Boasting a marquee billing “JaJa’s African Hairbraiding Salon,” The Samuel J. Friedman Theater at Manhattan Theatre Club is the destination of a title selling one of the season’s funniest presentations.

Featuring an ensemble cast of thespians representing Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Brittany Adebumola (Miriam) Maechi Aharanwa (Ndidi) Somi Kakoma (JaJa) Dominique Thorne (Marie) Zenzi Williams (Bea) Nana Mensah (Aminata) offer a portrait of some of the uniqueness of a day’s excursion uptown for a beauty treatment might evolve.

A familiar set is the first sign of familiar locations one might encounter. From iron-chained metal shutters outside to the swivel chairs, a myriad of packaged, colored tresses, hairspray, instruments that separate 100 percent human strands, synthetics and other real-life décor inside, audience will applaud the work of David Zinn whose set design masterfully recreates an identifiable portal.

The storefront.
The storefront.Photo by Vinette K. Pryce

Directed by Whitney White, there are fond remembrances, nostalgic references, humorous dialogue, Afro-beat, dance, fashion, food, gossip, peddlers, negotiated transactions, joy, cultural norms, romance, contemplative moments, mores, a well-positioned television screen and a myriad of messages to ponder a singular plait (sic).

However, it’s during the braiding appointments that much is revealed. As braiders spill the tea, ordinary-looking patrons transform to fabulous eye candy in 90-minutes without intermission.

Customers enter the salon sporting inch-long locks and by the close of business manage to grow waist-long tresses. Thanks to the genius of Nikiya Mathis whose masterful talent weaves wonderment to the stupendous artistry borne on the continent patrons leave looking as they imagined.

As one of the character reveal, JaJa’s daughter Marie is actually the worker bee for the enterprise. She mops, picks up discarded hair, tunes the television, responds to queries, make appointments and keeps order when bad behaving employees act out their differences.

Marie aspires to being a professional other than further her mother’s dreams of entering medical school.

And while each braider has a story to tell, customers also deliver their own engaging tales to the humorous production. Lakisha May (Vanessa) and Kalyne Coleman (Chrissy) reprises the long and short to the storyline.

Michael Oloyede (James) also adds credibility to intruders who offer bargain-basement discounted knock-offs to anyone willing to buy.

JaJa’s entry to the salon comes late but comes with style and optimism of a bright future.

The beaming shop keeper is as fashion-forward as any seen on any visit to the Village.

Dede White adds flair to the eye-candy exhibited throughout.

And Jocelyn Bion’s creation is crystalized as more than fodder but weaves an integral social commentary on immigration, ICE and gives textbook instructions that exemplify the African proverb that ‘it takes a village.”

And while the ingenious staging replicates long, tedious hours invested in beautification, engaging dialogue reveals purposeful African unity.

Underneath every story is the fact the braiders band together for a purpose.

For those unfamiliar with hair extensions, or have never visited such a beauty parlor, ‘JaJa’s African Hairbraiding Salon’ is the stop.

— Catch You On The Inside