It may seem like a mere mesh of fibers, follicles and proteins attached to our heads, but according to playwrights Nileah Bell, Mary Nyingi and Michelle Whittaker hair is monumentally more than that.
In The Hair Chronicles, the trio shares their personal stories and complicated relationships with their manes, focusing particularly on their experiences as women of color. Sometimes heartbreaking, yet frequently hilarious, this lyrical play offers intelligent insight into an issue to which most women identify.
So goes the story: three graduate students, described only as the Black Girl (Narlyia Sterling), the African Girl (Courtney Ferguson) and the Mixed Girl (Te’La Curtis Lee) stumble into conversations about their hair while struggling to come up with a topic for a research paper.
Procrastination prompts memories of embarrassing hairdos and parents who lend scathing criticisms of their daughters’ style choices. “The little things she says stay with me,” admits the African girl of her mother’s harsh comments. And there are a lot of moments like that, stories about not fitting in, or feeling unattractive because one’s hair defies the status quo. For example, the Mixed Girl once recalls being teased and ostracized because of the long, brown wavy hair her Black and Indian roots produced. “Being half means you aren’t whole,” she laments.
Fortunately their hair tales are not all painful. In fact they are mostly amusing, the kind of “you’ll never guess what happened” stories you can’t wait to tell your friends. For example, the Black Girl’s explanation of her elaborate screening process when choosing the perfect hairstylist earns big laughs.
Likewise when the African Girl tells the story of the stylist who fried her natural kinks into brittle straw, the audience is not only laughing, but practically nodding in unison, because they too have endured a nightmare beautician. In fact audiences are likely to have experienced lots of what these three “girls” discuss, as bad hair days tend to plague everyone.
Actress Narlyia Sterling delivers a perfect blend of sass and sensitivity as the Black Girl. Te’La Curtis Lee similarly showcases her range as the Mixed Girl, assertive one moment and vulnerable the next. As the African Girl, Courtney Ferguson, particularly during her monologues, commands the stage, her execution soulful, rhythmic and wise. And together these women have an obvious chemistry that’s fun to witness.
Director Nicole Brewer does an organized job of alternating between the play’s monologue and traditional narrative format, allowing for mostly smooth transitions. However the opening slideshow, while fun to watch, seemed an unnecessary show teaser. Ben de Quandros-Wander and Brandon Henderson create a set befitting three college students – a slightly disheveled table and chairs covered in a mountain of books, paper and laptops. The actors’ identical clothing (white t-shirts and blue jeans) is also a winning choice.
While The Hair Chronicles is of course a play about hair, at its root, it is story about self-discovery, self-love and redefining one’s standards of beauty on one’s own terms. And for those reasons and many more it is a play absolutely worth seeing.
The Hair Chronicles has 5 performances, ending July 22, 2012, at Goethe Institut, 812 7th St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets