By Stanford Friedman

The art of hair braiding stretches back thousands of years across African culture. A pillar of society, it has always served as a reason for the young to spend time with their elders as well as an excuse for women to gather and spill the tea. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh provides a colorful look at these traditions being carried forward at the small but bright Harlem salon known as Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, that has set up shop with the Manhattan Theatre Club. And though the play takes place in 2019, its underlying themes are as old as time: lost love, false hopes, dreams deferred.

This is a New York which is unknowingly a year away from a pandemic, but many of its residents nonetheless live with a daily dread, that of being called out as an illegal immigrant, and the ever-present risk of deportation. The employees of Jaja’s each have their own ways of living with this danger. Bioh intertwines their tales, director Whitney White shapes the action into a tight thing of beauty and the ensemble work of the energetic cast is streaked with highlights.

Jaja herself (Somi Kakoma) makes only a brief appearance at the salon. It is her wedding day, after all. The joyful event is tempered, though, as it becomes clear that her reasons for marriage, to a white guy named Steve, have more to do with gaining citizenship than it does with affairs of the heart. Kakoma does a lot in a little time, painting Jaja as both misguided in her actions and genuine in her desire to become an American.

Jaja’s absence means that her daughter, Marie (Dominique Thorne), is in charge for the day. She is more than up to the task. Having recently graduated as the valedictorian of her private high school, she should be joining her classmates in prepping for an elite college. But, having attended under a false identity, she at best might find her way into a community college. She wants to be a writer, Jaja dreams of her becoming a doctor. For now, she inventories hair extensions. Thorne’s sympathetic performance is endearing, even if Marie’s reasons for skipping her mother’s wedding seem more a handy solution for the playwright, than a true motivation.

Miriam (Brittany Adebumola) is the salon’s calm presence, a skilled braider with a fragile heart. She has immigrated from Sierra Leone, leaving behind her daughter and two different men. Adebumola’s underplayed intensity is just right. Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) is just the opposite, a loud and brash performer who discovered that doing hair in the U.S. is more profitable than a film career in Nigeria. She earns more than the other women which puts her at odds with Bea (Zenzi Williams) the eldest of the workers, a drama queen and lioness who has begun losing her edge. The chemistry between Williams and Aharanwa is wonderfully biting as their bickering raises the collective blood pressure of all around them. 

Aminata (Nana Mensah) pins her hopes on scratch-off lottery tickets, knowing that her husband James (Michael Oloyede) is a scheming deadbeat. The duo’s poignant scene, where James woos Aminata into handing over some cash, keenly shows just how trapped Aminata is in a wrong relationship.

The numerous clients who come in throughout the day are portrayed by three different actors. Miriam has a day-long customer in Jennifer (Rachel Christopher) who requests a complicated micro braiding. Her head effectively becomes the play’s clock,with jumps in time indicated by more and more braids magically appearing on her “kinda tender headed” noggin (Hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis is fantastic, throughout.). Kalyne Coleman is joyful in three different roles including Chrissy, a Beyonce wannabe. And Lakisha May is hilariously irritating in her three roles, including Marie’s former classmate Radia, now a Vanity Fair intern headed to Milan as part of the internship (Note to future VF applicants: that is not a thing that happens.).

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding – By Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Whitney White.

WITH: Brittany Adebumola (Miriam), Maechi Aharanwa (Ndidi), Rachel Christopher (Jennifer), Kalyne Coleman (Chrissy/Michelle/LaNiece), Somi Kakoma (Jaja), Lakisha May (Vanessa/Radia/Sheila), Nana Mensah (Aminata), Michael Oloyede (James and others), Dominique Thorne (Marie) and Zenzi Williams (Sista Bea).

Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by Justin Ellington; Video Design by Stefania Bulbarella; Hair and Wig Design by Nikiya Mathis; Make-Up Design by Felicia Graham. The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., 212-239-6200. Through November 5. Running time: 90 minutes