Every few decades the theater needs its “Steel Magnolias.” Before Robert Haring’s beauty-shop dramedy opened in 1987, there was Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 comedy, “The Women,” which also made a beauty salon central to its story.
Boothe Luce surrounded her pampered society ladies with a gaggle of hardworking (and low-paid) beauticians, shop girls, cooks and domestics who provide much of the critical assessment of those women who live on Park Avenue and its environs. Haring, on the other hand, cut all his female characters — hair dressers and customers alike — from the same sturdy fabric that binds them together in sisterhood.
Now comes Jocelyn Bioh’s one-act 90-minute play, “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” which had its world premiere Tuesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. This time, the business is a hair-braiding salon set in Harlem in 2019 (yes, there are jabs at the orange president), and the owner and her employees are immigrants from Africa.
Eventually these women achieve the solidarity of Haring’s characters, but before they get there, Bioh gives them plenty of Boothe Luce-style backbiting one-liners. Some of that comedy comes from the rivalry between the hair-braiding employees and some of it comes from demanding customers who don’t mind taking a few hours to get their hair done.
What does it cost in dollars to obtain these braids, of which there are many different styles, as David Zinn’s clever set design makes clear even before the show starts? It must cost a lot, because one of the revelations of “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is that the price is never negotiated inside the shop. Those discussions take place outside on the sidewalk. Another revelation is the significant physical cost that comes to a woman’s hands after she has finished hours of attaching braids to another person’s head.
Even when Haring and Boothe Luce’s plays were first staged in 1987 and 1936, respectively, one could not have called either of them especially topical. Neither tackled a big societal problem. That’s where Bioh’s play is most different, and its finest feature is how the playwright weaves the current immigration crisis into her narrative with considerable humor before the story turns extremely dark with a late-in-the-play jolt.
Bioh is most successful with the characters that she takes the time to develop: the hair-braiders (Brittany Adebumola, Maechi Aharanwa, Nana Mensah, Dominique Thorne and Zensi Williams) and the one customer (Kalyne Coleman) who almost takes up residence in the shop to get her hair done. Bioh also wisely delays the appearance of Jaja to give a show-stopping cameo turn to actor Somi Kakoma, who makes the very most of her few minutes on stage. In her gobbling up all the oxygen on stage, Kakoma is helped immensely by sporting an outrageous wedding-cake gown (by Dede Ayite). It manages to upstage all the exotic hair and wig designs (by Nikiya Mathis) that have preceded it.
Handled with far less finesse are the bit roles delivered by the actors Kalyne Coleman, Michael Oloyede and Lakisha May, each of whom is assigned a handful of overdrawn caricatures. They range from a nasty customer to a deadbeat husband to a Beyonce wannabe. Bioh has written them all as cartoons and Whitney White’s direction delivers them in primary sitcom colors.
Sometimes Bioh’s penchant for the blatant is apparent even when she is borrowing from other playwrights. One subplot — Jaja’s daughter (Thorne) is forced to postpone her college education — is lifted right out of “In the Heights,” and it’s not enough that the teenager be a gifted student. Bioh makes her the class valedictorian. Another detail that any experienced theatergoer will see hours of stage time beforehand is that Jaja’s most recalcitrant employee will end up the play’s real hero.
Even though “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” takes place entirely in the hair salon, as does “Steel Magnolias,” the play is a series of short skits, as is “The Women”; and like that Boothe Luce play, many of those scenes lack a good button. They tend to dribble away dramatically rather than end with a comic bang.
Regarding “The Women,” the far superior 1939 screenplay, by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, provided the needed oomph. Regarding “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” White’s direction handles that problem by providing a number of nifty visual segues between scenes.