To find out what's on the minds of African-Americans, check out what's on their heads. That's the philosophy of writer Craig Marberry, who focuses on the hairline and above for two books about black culture, each of which has provided stage plays for the Alliance Theatre. Crowns, musicalized by Regina Taylor, explored the traditions of church hats to reveal the fashion and faith of generations of African-American women.
Marberry shifted to the male perspective with his 2005 nonfiction book, Cuttin' Up, which discovers the black barbershop to be more than just a place to spruce up, but a hub of masculine identity and information. Playwright Charles Randolph-Wright adapts Cuttin' Up as a kaleidoscopic but conventional stage play (presumably leaving the songs and dances about barbering to Sweeney Todd). Directed by Kent Gash, Cuttin' Up features compelling anecdotes and exuberant performances, but, at times, it's like watching hair grow.
In one of the earliest exchanges at Howard's Barber Shop in Atlanta, veteran hair-cutter Howard (Helmar Augustus Cooper) asks his fortyish protégé Andre (TV actor Keith Hamilton Cobb) if he can identify traditional haircuts such as the "Jersey fade." Andre knows the looks but not their history. Apparently some African-American haircuts originated from slaveholders as a form of regional branding; if people saw a black man in Virginia with a Georgia haircut, he was probably a runaway.
Details such as that, or the rituals of a boy's first haircut as a rite of passage, embody all the virtues of fine oral history. Cuttin' Up's best scenes use the barbershop to reveal the richness of the black community across decades. Thrice-married Andre has cut hair across the country, and thus can pass along barbershop stories from coast to coast, such as defying the AIDS scare by cutting a gay man's hair in early 1980s San Francisco. Palpable tension accompanies a brief, near-wordless scene when junior barber Rudy (Eugene H. Russell IV) snips the hair of a silent, sinister man who may be a gangbanger.
More often Cuttin' Up goes for comedy, crafting "montages" out of difficult customers and silly haircuts, including damp Jheri curls, unmanageably huge Afros and braided hair pulled so tight it becomes "a poor man's face lift." To capture the barbershop as a venue for gossip and bull sessions, the performance I attended featured some unscripted-sounding dialogue about current news, including Alec Baldwin's now-notorious telephone rant.
You can excuse the broad quality of Cuttin' Up's humor, including the men's denial that they watch soap operas and one barber's anecdote about Don King (Donald Griffin). At times, however, the zaniness comes out of nowhere, such as the attempts of two men of the cloth to out-preach each other, or Rudy's impressive, impromptu dance to lighten the mood after a story about the lynching of Emmett Till.
Cuttin' Up features a versatile cast, with Griffin, Duane Boutté, Carl Cofield and the scene-stealing E. Roger Mitchell playing multiple parts. Marva Hicks charms in all the female roles, although it's hard to shake the suspicion that none of them are necessary. It's hard to muster much interest in Andre's intimacy issues with women or the play's various father/son dynamics. Randolph-Wright's script labors to give the main characters dramatic interest and suffers in comparison to Crowns, which could rely on musical numbers to keep things lively, without requiring so much structure.
Shaun L. Motley's set contains a visual pun: Below the barbershop floor we can see a network of roots, as if from a massive oak tree, nodding to both hair roots and the depths of the community. Gash's direction reveals ample respect for barbers as humble but dignified role models, but can't allay the repetitive quality of the material. In Act 2, the play always seems to be ending, to setting a valedictory tone, while taking forever to actually finish. It's ironic that a play about barbers puts on such a good front, while needing some serious trimming in the back.
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