In the historic Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, Jaja’s African hair braiding shop is nearly ready to open. In the middle of the stage sits a storefront reminiscent of countless shops all over New York, complete with faded signage and a protective metal gate. A young woman hurriedly approaches, unlocking the gate and rolling it up to reveal a vibrant pink-walled salon. One by one, the hair braiders make their way to work in the central Harlem business, followed shortly by a diverse clientele of women looking for fresh braid-ups.
The hour-and-a-half play centers on the lives of these seven braiders, each with troubles and triumphs of their own. Marie (Dominique Thorne), the teenage daughter of the shop’s namesake Jaja, grapples with her future after graduating high school. Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), a woman from Sierra Leone, works meticulously on micro braids as she regales her customer with tales of a love left behind. Veteran braiders Aminata (Nana Mensah) and Bea (Zenzi Williams) gossip about Jaja’s upcoming nuptials to a white man named Steve, while also contending with philandering husbands and younger braiders like Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) taking over their clients.
A day at the shop includes lots of gossip, frequent dance breaks, and intricate hairstyles. Stage magic helps transform what is ordinarily an hours-long endeavor to the length of the show, with braid styles getting completed before the final bow. While the women of Jaja’s shop often collide, their rapport is familial. That bond is ultimately tested at the end of the play when a sudden twist disrupts the show’s otherwise steady flow.
Despite the business (and play) bearing her name, Jaja appears much later, decked out in a wedding dress. After making an impassioned speech about the plight of immigrants in the U.S., she leaves for her courthouse ceremony. Chaos ensues when it’s later reported to Marie that Jaja was picked up at city hall and detained by ICE.
The change in pace is hurried and confusing, perhaps even unwelcome so close to curtain call. The deviation, however, does provide an opportunity for the women to put aside their petty grievances and unite as a family. “We will figure this out together,” Bea says in a moment of maternal tenderness, her confidence unwavering. Curiously, despite Bea proving the most antagonistic towards Jaja the entire play, she is the one who ultimately steps up and takes Marie in.
As the braiders lock up for the evening and head to dinner to plot Jaja’s release, one can only imagine what the next few days have in store for them. The only certainty offered is that whatever happens, Jaja’s African hair braiding shop will persevere.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding has been extended on Broadway until Nov. 19.
Cast: Brittany Adebumola, Maechi Aharanwa, Rachel Christopher, Kalyne Coleman, Somi Kakoma, Lakisha May, Nana Mensah, Michael Oloyede, Dominique Thorne, Zenzi Williams, Victoire Charles, Onye Eme-Akwari, Abigail C. Onwunali, Morgan Scott
Crew: Jocelyn Bioh (Playwright), Whitney White (Director), Madison Wells Live (Producing Partner), LaChanze (Producing Partner) Taraji P. Henson (Producing Partner), David Zinn (Scenic Design), Dede Ayite (Costume Design), Jiyoun Chang (Lighting Design), Justin Ellington (Original Music & Sound Design), Stefania Bulbarella (Video Design), Nikiya Mathis (Hair & Wig Design), Dawn-Elin Fraser (Dialect & Vocal Coach), Caparelliotis Casting, Kelly Gillespie, & Erica Hart (Casting), Melanie J. Lisby (Production Stage Manager), Monét Thibou (Stage Manager)