Piles of colourful patterned fabrics line the stage, and three women dressed in black Lycra leotards select a fabric and wrap it around their head. The fabrics are drawn across the stage as the performers’ bodies undulate in a backwards crawl, before the scene is set as a hair salon with the colours swept away in a swirl around a chair.
As the title The Hair Wrap Diaries suggests, during this Uchenna Dance production written by Bola Agaje in partnership with director and choreographer Vicki Igbokwe, we hear different stories from each performer. Yet the show is also interspersed with dance, giving it a strong sense of poetics as the words are broken up and repeated with the movements. The stories themselves are carefully selected, offering a rainbow of different generations of black women, exploring their relationship with hair. One of the stories includes a young school girl, played by Emmanuella Idris, who wants long wavy blonde hair, which she fashions from a yellow fabric, and plays with as if galloping with ponies, and whatever other things we are conditioned to associate with femininity and girlhood. This scene truly captures the concept of such a ridiculous yet insidious “ideal” in a way that is humorous, but also hard-hitting. I remember painting an “angel” at primary school with bright blonde hair, at a time where the blonde girl in the class was always ranked top of those awful lists boys made of girls, clearly already being conditioned with the so-called beauty standards that surround all women, where we are judged on how closely we measure up to said standards.
truly captures the concept of such a ridiculous yet insidious “ideal” in a way that is humorous, but also hard-hitting.
Another character, played by Shanelle Clemenson, has a section on “good hair”, a concept brought to mainstream audiences – among others – through Chris Rock’s documentary on the subject (though previously broached in the film My Nappy Roots: A Journey through Black Hair-itage). This is one of the many ways the production added humour in a way much of the audience was clearly able to relate to, as laughter was just as prominent here as moments of thoughtful silence. A third character, played by Natalie Bailey, told a story of a grandmother who went to the salon for the first time in her seventies, again filled with both humour and poignancy.
One of my favourite scenes was when the young girl was being combed, showing the incredible movements that made the scene appear as if it were a film being sped up, giving a sense of the time and pain it takes to comb black hair. Although a play very much intended for audience of black women in order to be relatable to their experiences, the writer also set out their intention to write a piece for all women to gain something from it. Alynda Wheat, in critiquing the Rock documentary, also argues that managing hair is something all women can relate to, just in different ways.
The Hair Wrap Diaries’ writer Igbokwe states ‘I wanted to create an experience that celebrated the versatility of afro-hair, the diversity of black women and empower ALL women to embrace and own their beauty’ in the promotional material given on entering the theatre space. Although as a white woman, not able to personally identify with these particular experiences of black women, viewing this scene I was brought back to a time when I first went to the hairdressers as a teenager (my dad used to cut my hair) and they needed two members of staff to brush my hair. I still remember one of them urgently requesting for the “Control Freak” hair product. Embarrassing and painful at time, but funny to look back on now. These scenes rely on this communal remembrance of painful memories, and the ability to find the humour within them.
What is uniquely explored in this piece is the cultural heritage of this journey with hair and hair wraps, strongly tied together in its final scene where storytelling becomes poetry with each performer offering a repetition of words that empower women to think about the role of their personal histories and ancestry when it comes to hair wraps. Antonia Cooper, another attendee, commented on this saying “Even though it was African orientated, it was inclusive of us Caribbeans. Having only ever seen my Granny with a head tie, it put it into context about where it came from and what it might have represented before.” As well as storytelling, the show offers a plethora of different styles of dancing, including a blend of club styles House, Waacking and Vogue with African and Contemporary Dance, giving the production a fun and positive vibe. Yolanda Perez-Rosselson, another audience member also commented on the production’s relatability and the incredible skills displayed in the dancing and physicalization used throughout.
the cultural heritage of this journey with hair and hair wraps, strongly tied together in its final scene where storytelling becomes poetry
Lastly, another member of the audience, Natalie Cooper described the impact of the show in length. She describes it as “soul nourishment… the creative choices that were made were phenomenal. It was powerful, each dancer had their own strong style and identity and I loved watching as they transformed into these roles and continued to work in harmony with each other. I will never look at a headwrap in the same way again. My Granny wore hers it seemed for convenience… I wear mine only to exude glamour. And the story forced us to examine what they mean to us and about the women who brought us up. The best parts reminded me of the joys of sisterhood, playfulness and spontaneity, like when a description of hair turned into a full blown rap. That’s literally how I grew up with my crazy siblings… we’ve grown up now.”
Like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles but for women, with fewer words and more dancing, this production warms the heart and enlivens the soul. Catch the tour of The Head Wrap Diaries before it finishes: 26th – Leeds, 14th July – Hereford.
All images by Foteini Christofilopoloum via Uchenna Dance