Hair is a fraught subject for most women. For black women, the struggle with their locks (braids, weaves, relaxed or natural) can be titanic – getting your hair done can be a day-long ordeal. The notion of “good hair” comes freighted with shame (as shown in Chris Rock’s documentary of that name); “good hair” is silky, straight, conforming to white western standards of beauty.
Vicki Igbokwe’s The Head Wrap Diaries, however, took the emotions, politics and cultural significance that surround black hair and plaited them into a funny, fierce, engaging and celebratory show.
With the feted playwright Bola Agbaje on board as writer, Igbokwe explored a variety of wryly humorous stories, acted out by her talented trio of performers. There was the little girl galloping round the stage dreaming of having a “long, blonde, wavy, Barbie ponytail”, but instead having to submit to her mother’s dreaded relaxer and combs. There was the 19-year-old working in Top Shop who wanted everyone to see her hair as a statement and took her inspiration from Janet Jackson. There was 73-year-old Aunt Florence, who went to the hairdresser for a perm and ended up winin’ and crying out to Jehovah with the pain.
Shanelle Clemenson (a natural comedienne), Natalie Bailey and Emmanuella Idris revealed warm, gregarious stage presences and also showed strong movement skills as they linked these scenes with a mix of waacking, voguing, house dance, African and contemporary styles that added a welcome dynamism. Finally, we were asked to “respect the cloth” as the three (plus two game audience members) wrapped their hair in impressively intricate styles, then used their wraps like flamenco shawls, brandished with pride and defiance.
Yes, some of the segments were too long, and there was a certain amiable chaos to the piece’s structure – but this was nonetheless a show that left you buoyed up and glad to have spent time with these wrap stars.