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Jaja's African Hair Braiding

A person in a white dress and a person in a white dress

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Dominique Thorne; Some Kakoma (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


Jaja's African Hair Braiding


Reviewed by Julia Polinsky



On a hot summer day in 2019, a pre-pandemic time that now feels almost unimaginably remote, a group of women gather in a hair braiding shop in Harlem, a salon as brightly hot-pink and lively as scenic designer David Zinn can make it.


The opening scene introduces us to Jaja's aspirational daughter Marie (Dominique Thorne), an undocumented immigrant born in Senegal who is also her high school valedictorian, and her friend/confidant/colleague Miriam (Brittany Adebumola). We meet them outside the salon, with its grim steel roll-up gate framed by a scrim of African braiding hairstyles.


The gate rises; the scrim vanishes; the set rotates to bring us into Jaja's African Hair Braiding shop. Everything happens here, in worn chairs, within these walls cluttered with extensions, tools of the trade, and photos of elaborate, African braided hair. All else flows from the wonderful women who inhabit the space and their stories, as intertwined and complex as the braids on display.


They come from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the US, these women. Whether they work at Jaja's or are customers who come for braids, each has her own story, happy or sad, political or personal. They talk about men and marriage; love, work, hopes and dreams, memories, demands and expectations, micro braids and extensions, Beyonce, Nollywood, and African music. These women are so real, you feel like you could meet them just around the corner.


The actors are pitch-perfect; it's difficult to pick out a performance better than any other. Nana Mensah, as Aminata of the difficult marriage, and the beautifully bitchy Bea (Zenzi Williams), who are old friends and colleagues, lead the charge. They are the first to arrive and assert themselves, over each other, over Miriam, Marie, and the lively new braider, Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa). Michael Oloyede plays all of the male characters in the show: Sock Man, the DVD Man, and the Jewelry Man - vendors who breeze into this woman-centered holy of holies, flirting like mad. Oloyede also plays James, Amanita's manipulative, no-good husband.


A person and person dancing on a stage

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Nana Mensah, Michael Oloyede Maechi Aharanwa, Lakisha May (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


Then, there are the clients - don't forget the clients. Jennifer (Rachel Christopher) arrives early in the play and asks for micro-braids. After most of the stylists back away slowly, Miriam steps up. Micro braids take hours, so Jennifer spends the rest of the show in the chair, her aspiring journalist self gently investigating Miriam's life story.


Kalyne Coleman and Lakisha May play multiple roles, in hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis's magical assortment of African braids and wigs. They are the ultra-high-maintenance client, with her very short fuse and her Karen-level insistence on using her own products; the hilariously self-deluding Beyonce wannabe, the "stolen" customer who's trying a new braider instead of Bea, timidly trying to make everybody happy. Not possible. You can't make some of these women happy.


A person in a hairdresser's room

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Kalyne Coleman, Maechi Aharanwa ((Photo: Matthew Murphy)


Especially not Marie's mother, the Jaja of Jaja's African Hair Braiding (Somi Kakoma). Bea may think she's the queen bee of the shop, but when the majestic Jaja enters, everyone else fades a bit.


It's her wedding day; she arrives in a white gown so splendidly overwhelming (costumes by Dede Ayite) it's the visible testament to her readiness for the future. About to marry Steven, a White man, so that she can get her citizenship papers, she is so strong, she believes fiercely in the future, with an undercurrent of anger at the way the world works. In spite of her magnificence and humor, she is terribly insensitive to her daughter's own hopes.


Nobody in the salon goes to the wedding, so when the ladies hear the new of what actually happens when Jaja and Steven arrive at the courthouse, it's so fresh and raw, the women bond together to protect and help one another. Bea, here, especially shows her rock-solid loving side, protecting and caring for Marie as best she can. Beautiful.


Jaja's African Hair Braiding does not focus exclusively on the plight of undocumented African immigrants, but the author weaves immigrant uncertainty through the whole 90 minutes of the play. As much as Jaja's African Hair Braiding is a comedy about aspiration, it also dishes out a hearty dose of unpleasant reality, softened by the sisterhood of these terrific women and their care for each other.



Jaja's African Hair Braiding

At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

261 W 47th St

Through November 19

1:45; no intermission