Jaja’s African Hair Braiding: Superb Harlem-Set Comedy Celebrates Black Women

by Gee NY
Image credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

A ground-breaking comedy-drama set in Harlem and titled “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” has since its premiere on Oct.3, 2023, triggered a storm of rave reviews.

The New York Times describes the play by Jocelyn Bioh as “a hot and hilarious workplace sitcom”, while The Guardian calls the play “a delightful ode and visual feast”. 

For Variety Magazine, the play’s magic is in its ability to “bring life to a seemingly mundane space” like a hair salon.

Now on Broadway, the play depicts events at an African hair braiding shop bustling with customers, vendors and braiders. The shop has its own language, rules and expectations. 

You will sit for hours to get the braids of your choosing. You will arch your neck (oft in silence and in pain) as a braider plaits infinite rows. But a bond is forged as many gather for the singular purpose of a fresh hairstyle, with all its cultural and cosmetic magic.

The play is set in an imaginary Harlem hair braiding shop, taking place across a singular business day. On this particular day, the shop is under the care of Marie (Dominique Thorne) as her mother Jaja (Somi Kakoma) readies herself for upcoming nuptials. Braiders Aminata (Nana Mensah) and Bea (Zenzi Williams) pass the shift by disparaging Jaja’s wedding, trading insults about her dress and her relationship to “a white man named Steve”. Still, a train of customers come and go, each in pursuit of a selected hairstyle.

Jaja’s is a visual feast, an embrace of the inimitable palette that defines West African aesthetic. Scenic design by David Zinn deals in technicolor and an impressive specificity. The shop’s bright pink walls are decorated with blue tinsel. Infinite pictures of braid designs plaster the walls. Jaja’s shop even features the ever-essential “piece de resistance” of an African braiding shop: a corner flatscreen TV, perched at an impossible angle for day-long customers.

Jaja’s world-building is further buoyed by the creative talents of costume designer Dede Ayite and Nikiya Mathis on hair and wigs. Mathis, in particular, creates an impressive kaleidoscope of protective styles for Jaja’s cast: microbraids, cornrows, lemonade braids and more.

With Jaja’s, Bioh once again flexes her signature comedic timing. The Ghanaian-American playwright plays in archetypes, etches identifiable to those of us who have spent lifecycles in braiding chairs. 

There isn’t so much a commitment to realism: the hair braiders speak only in English and are willing to deliver their life stories to any listening customer. Bioh, instead, orchestrates a revolving door of merry conflicts: arguments about stolen clients between Bea and new braider Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) or showdowns between employers and entitled customers.

The play is a celebration of is a celebration of Black women immigrants and sacred spaces.

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