His hit play has travelled around the world and now is back in the county where it all began. Presumably while the play has been touring, Ellams has spoken to journalists all over the world about Barber Shop Chronicles, which might explain why it takes him a little while to muster up a lot of enthusiasm to talk about the show when we speak.
Once he gets going, however, the eloquence for which the writer and poet is known returns and the passion for this project is clear.
At first, though, he struggles to recall the beginnings of this extraordinary project.
I remind him.
It was the Leeds Playhouse, then the West Yorkshire Playhouse, that was instrumental in bringing Barber Shop Chronicles to life, helping to facilitate meetings between the writer and barbershops in Chapeltown.
“That’s right. I was developing the piece at the National Theatre and someone suggested I go to another part of the country to carry on my research. I chose to go to Leeds because I knew it had a population of Africans. It made sense to go there – there was another reason, but I forget the details.”
I remember: back in 2014 Furnace, the new work festival at the Playhouse, provided a first home for the scratch performance of Barber Shop Chronicles, before it went on to open at the National in 2017.
Ellams is a Nigerian-born, now London-living former refugee whose Barber Shop Chronicles contains within some of the scope of his international life experiences. Moving from Leeds to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala and London, the play is set in a barber shop in each of those countries with an overlapping and weaving narrative. The stories in the play are all based on overheard conversations Ellams was witness to while spending time in barber shops on different continents.
“I didn’t know what to expect, really,” he says of the research process that began in Leeds several years ago.
“I just went searching for conversations. Not for artistic drivers or themes. I just listened and took notes and when I heard an interesting conversation come up, I prodded a little deeper. When a topic came up three or four times with different people in different barber shops then I knew that was a subject that would make the final draft.”
Barber shops turned out to be pretty interesting places.
“I would transcribe the conversations I had heard at the end of the day. I did something like 60 hours of research which meant the first draft was about four or five hours long,” says Ellams. “I knew it was interesting to me, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be interesting to the rest of the world.”
When it opened at the National Theatre in May 2017 before heading North to the Leeds Playhouse a month later, audiences told Ellams that it was going to be very interesting to the rest of the world. The cast of the play knew a little earlier.
“I remember in the first week of rehearsals one of the older members of the cast came to talk to me and said that he had been acting for 40 years and that this play contained lines that he never thought he would get to say on stage.
“I remember I just looked back at him sheepishly and said ‘thank you’. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t echo back the intensity of these deep feelings he was experiencing and he gave me a look like I was just a small boy and then he went and spoke to another older member of the cast. It took me a while to understand how significant it was, what he was saying.”
When the play opened it was to rave reviews. Seeing a dozen black male actors on stage is such a rarity, and to have these actors telling these stories that emanated from the community definitely marked an important moment for British theatre. Ellams says: “We were all quite taken aback by the response. The thing is, a good story is a good story that is timeless and that is something that connects. It’s only two years since the play had its premiere, so I think it’s a little early to call it a classic, but it does seem to be connecting with people.”
It really does. After the initial run at the National and Leeds, along with some of the other producing partner venues, Barber Shop Chronicles went on to tour across the world and is currently on a first UK tour, arriving in Sheffield this week and returning to the Leeds Playhouse in the autumn.
That the play will be seen again is great for audiences and, obviously, great for Ellams, but he is a little conflicted.
“I think the reason the play still works is because the world really hasn’t shifted very much in the two years since it was first seen,” he says. “African men are still being demonised and brutalised. We should have reached a point where, when you see black men on stage just being regular men with stories and lives it should be boring.
“It should be dated and mundane to see the lives of black men on stage, but the reason Barber Shop Chronicles still works is because we don’t see that. When people watch the play it confirms the humanity of a certain kind of person and the humanity of the audience because they watch these people on stage and say ‘of course their lives are like that, because our lives are like that’.”
Once he gets going, there is still plenty for Ellams to be enthusiastic about when it comes to Barber Shop Chronicles.
A place for haircuts and much more
For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops. Sometimes they have haircuts, sometimes they listen, more often than not they talk. Barber shops are confession boxes, political platforms, preacher-pulpits and football pitches... places to go for unofficial advice, and to keep in touch with the world. Barber Shop Chronicles is a heart-warming, hilarious and insightful play, set in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London.
At Sheffield Crucible, to June 1. Tickets from the box office on 0114 2496000.
At Leeds Playhouse, November 20 – 23 leedsplayhouse.org.uk