Braids were appropriately the trend of the moment on the opening night red carpet of Jocelyn Bioh's Jaja’s African Hair Braiding. From Cody Renard Richard's knee-length braids to Zenzi Williams' sculptural updo, the company of the show and their opening night guests turned up and turned out!
An actor and writer, Bioh made her Broadway debut as a performer in 2014 in the original company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In 2017, she wowed theatregoers with the Off-Broadway premiere of her work School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.
Jaja's African Hair Braiding is Bioh's Broadway playwriting debut, and the cast was not shy about singing her praises as they met the opening night press.
"Jocelyn is a genius," says Kalyne Coleman, one of seven actors making their own Broadway debut in the play. "And the thing about it is, she gives us so much space to have fun as Black women—to be different characters, to show our complex humanity, and to also fight for the truth, while also making people laugh. I am in awe of this woman."
Coleman plays three different customers in the Harlem salon which serves as the setting for the play. Taking place in the course of one day at the shop from open to close (as long as it takes one woman to get a head full of micro braids), Jaja's African Hair Braiding tells the story of the group of women who congregate there. The stylists, all immigrants from Africa, tussle over stolen customers and swap stories of home and loved ones while they braid. They celebrate Jaja's wedding day while they worry where, and if, her daughter Marie will go to college.
Zenzi Williams, who plays the stylist Bea (who very much is the heart of the show), sees Jaja's as a love letter to Black women. "As someone who also got their hair done in Harlem—125th Street, Apollo Beauty Land—these women are familiar to me. It's such a blessing to be able to bring their story to this stage," she says. "Women who work with their hands, Black women who work with their hands, I think sometimes are invisible. And it's so wonderful to be able to shed light on their beauty and what they give to our culture."
That sense of love for the women of the salon, and the women who served as their inspiration, was also at the forefront for Somi Kakoma, who plays Jaja: "For me as a daughter of immigrants, as an African woman, as a Black woman, it's always satisfying, not only artistically, but spiritually, soulfully, to be able to play characters that remind us of our mothers, our aunts, our community, ourselves. I'm grateful."
As much as the play looks at the joy in the lives of these Harlem women, it also shines a bright light on the shadow that hangs over them: immigration. Bioh chats a bit about what inspired her to tackle the subject. "I wrote the play in 2019 when we were in a different administration and a different time. And I think there was only one face of immigration that was kind of being portrayed to the media. And I was going to the hair braiding salons all the time seeing these women who were fearing for their lives or their livelihood, because of the ideology that was being pumped into the media. And I wanted to be able to kind of highlight and reflect the rich diaspora that immigration affects," says the playwright. "And you know, I have a spoonful of sugar mentality—there's a way to bring people in, make them laugh, let them have a good time, but also give them a bottom where they leave feeling something, whether that's empathy, whether that's a reflection of who they are and thinking about their own implicit biases, whatever it is. I'm hopeful and grateful that that is the energy that people leave with every night."
To celebrate the joy emanating from the onstage salon, Playbill asked the opening night red carpet guests how many braid styles they could name in 15 seconds. Check out the video below.
The production began previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre September 12 as part of Manhattan Theatre Club's season.
Whitney White directs the play's world premiere. The cast features Brittany Adebumola, Maechi Aharanwa, Rachel Christopher, Kalyne Coleman, Somi Kakoma, Lakisha May, Nana Mensah, Michael Oloyede, Dominique Thorne, and Zenzi Williams. Rounding out the company are understudies Victoire Charles, Abigail C. Onwunali, Onye Eme-Akwari, Morgan Scott, and Rachel Christopher.
See photos from the opening night red carpet in the gallery below. Along with the company and producers mentioned above, guests included Tony winner Adrienne Warren, Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr. and wife Nicolette Robinson, Phillipa Soo, and more. And several were rocking braids.