There’s a new Broadway show in town that brings the Black women’s hair experience to the big stage in the most beautiful way. Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, a play penned by playwright Jocelyn Bioh tells the story of a hair braiding shop based in Harlem, New York that’s kept going by a group of West African immigrants navigating love, hidden dreams, and a sense of belonging in the United States. It’s told from the perspective of a recent high school graduate helping to manage her mother’s shop and maintain its legacy. There, she works alongside lively, eclectic women who create visual masterpieces on the heads of the women in their neighborhood while overcoming a plethora of unforeseen circumstances of their own.
With an all-Black cast and majority Black creatives mind behind the scenes, the 90-minute Manhattan Theatre Club production invites the audience to spend a day inside of the imaginary hair salon for a glimpse inside of both the nuanced customer and hairdresser relationship. Award-winning writer and performer Bioh (School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play, Happiness and Joe, Nollywood Dreams and African Americans) is the woman at the helm of this play, which audiences get to see come to life at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In conversation with Refinery29 Unbothered, the playwright discusses what it’s been like to make her Broadway playwriting debut and details her years-long vision for the delightful ode to sisterhood and fellowship.
“Black women are the backbone of America,” Bioh told Unbothered. “We keep it going, we keep it running… I knew I wanted to be a part of that story on the Broadway stage.”
Plastered around the makeshift set’s salon doors are images reminiscent of ‘90s-styled, old-school photos showcasing a range of protective styles from kinky twists to box braids. Naturally, the shop also included a thick lookbook for clients to flip through. Beyond the shop, the air was filled with the authentic sounds of a New York City subway, with the occasional Afrobeats tune bringing out the best dance moves from the aunties.The play, which includes Taraji P. Henson among the A-listers producing the show, features many subtle moments that only a Black woman could connect with — like the flirty, over-complimentary shop vendors who have become regulars to the awkwardness of booking with a new hair stylist for the first time.
One of the most notable recurring references throughout the play is to Beyoncé. From the bold, colorful costume design (by Dede Ayite) to the music videos displayed on the side screens instage, it was obvious that the Beyhive was involved in the production. Hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis showcased impressive looks interwoven throughout the play, and the Beyoncé lemonade braids were certainly a standout.
“Beyonce is the moment,” White said.
Bioh, a first-generation Ghanaian-American, shared that her background contributed to her desire to write about the immigrant experience, an integral part of the show’s storyline. As a New York City native who grew up in Washington Heights, Bioh has frequented Harlem braiding shops since she was a young girl. In fact, she revealed that a real-life braider named JaJa does exist, and the name of the shop is inspired by and dedicated to her authentic experience.
“I really know these shops— they are the heart of Harlem,” said Bioh.
Obie Award-winner Whitney White, who serves as the show’s Director, is a Chicago native who was born into an immigrant family from Jamaica. She too can relate to going to local shops for braiding styles in her younger years.. “Those women are such vivid forces in my life,” White told Unbothered. “I saw those braiders as powerhouses.” I’ve lived in the New York City area for roughly eight years and have seen over a dozen Broadway shows. This one was hands-down my favorite production because of its attention to the smallest of details. Through profound storytelling, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding succeeds in showcasing the authentic experience of getting protective styles at a hair salon and educating me on the unique struggles many hard-working braiders face (including the rarely discussed secret to healing swollen fingers). In a moving Playwright’s Note, Bioh penned a special tribute to the hair braiders, calling them “heroes, craftswomen and artists with beautiful, gifted and skilled hands.”
“This play is for each and every person who enters the shop,” reads the note. “Their hopes. Their dreams. Their incredible stories of how and why they came to this country.”
The Broadway show arrives at a pivotal moment when we're seeing more Black women expressing frustration with the “new age” hair stylists who avoid hair care prioritization, lack professionalism, and even price gouge their clientele. Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is a timely, ever-relevant reminder of the necessity of Black beauty salons in our community, proving how monumental it is for us to create safe spaces for us to just be us.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding runs through November 19. Visit here for more information and to purchase tickets.