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“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” reviewed

At Jocelyn Bioh’s Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, which follows a day in the life of braiders and customers at the eponymous (fictional) shop in Harlem, waves of glee roll through the audience on the regular. People are cackling, downright screaming with delight — the man in the couple next to me kept covering his face as he cracked up, shaking his head and repeating to his girlfriend, “I can’t.”

Bioh is a muscular, funny writer, and Jaja’s, especially once it gets going, is a very funny show. But it’s not just that. The screams, the cheers, the “I can’t”s — they’re about recognition. A certain tone of voice from one of the braiders, a certain way of clicking a tongue or raising an eyebrow, the reveal of a particular hairstyle after a character has spent ages (well, theatrical ages) in one of the chairs, or the entrance of that guy selling socks (played with gusto, along with several other archetypal visitors to the shop, by Michael Oloyede): They’re joyful because they’re specific, because they’re sharply and affectionately observed. Especially in a big theater off Times Square, there’s something exhilarating about listening to people snap and holler and cheer not because they’re seeing someone famous but because they’re seeing someone they know.

Bioh — who, pandemic be damned, has been on a real roll over the past several years, with Nollywood Dreams, an adapted Merry Wives for Shakespeare in the Park, and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play — grew up in Washington Heights, where her Ghanaian parents immigrated in the late ’60s. “Since I was 4 years old,” Bioh writes in a note on her play, “I have been wearing my hair in braids … So I have spent a very large portion of my life in hair-braiding shops and can tell you all about them.” For its writer, Jaja’s is a tribute to the “heroes, craftswomen, and artists” who run these shops, and for much of the play, that celebratory atmosphere reigns. Jaja (Somi Kakoma) is getting married! And her teenage daughter, Marie (Dominique Thorne), and a bevy of braiders are spending a day at the shop doing business as usual and waiting for the boss lady to stop by and show off her gown before she heads to the courthouse.

In director Whitney White’s zingy production, Jaja’s is a second home for its employees, sometimes for its customers, too. “I feel like I moved in for the day,” says Jennifer (Rachel Christopher), an aspiring journalist who arrives early in the morning and asks for long micro-braids — a style that will keep the shop’s youngest, most soft-spoken braider, Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), busy pretty much until closing time. Despite the comforting atmosphere (enhanced by the juicy, satisfying world detail of David Zinn’s pink-walled set), it’s not hard to guess that the hazards of the outside world will eventually invade this matriarchal space. Marie, for one, is already anxious. Despite being valedictorian at the “fancy school” her mother has managed to send her to, Marie can’t relax — how will Jaja react when she finds out her daughter wants to be a writer, not a doctor? (Bioh has quipped that she doubts her own mother will “ever forgive” her for choosing the theater over an M.D.) And even more nerve-racking: Given her mother’s immigration status, will college even be an option for Marie? So far, she has been using a distant cousin’s ID to attend school, and the risk is starting to wear on her.

That’s the cloud that hangs over Jaja’s bright-pink haven: All these immigrant women know the dangerous, exhausting limbo of waiting to be pronounced “legal” by the place you’ve lived and worked in for years and years. Jaja’s marriage to “her white man,” Steven, isn’t just a reason for a big dress and a party — it means citizenship and safety for her and Marie.

The whole ensemble of Jaja’s is strong, but the play really finds its punch when the two veterans roll up. As Bea, the shop’s most senior braider and most senior gossip, and Aminata, Bea’s confidante who’s got a sly sense of humor and a tempestuous love life, Zenzi Williams and Nana Mensah absolutely anchor the cast. Both as characters and as actors, they bring a sense of ease and breadth, the confidence and the mischief that come with experience. Mensah is elegant, playful, and grounded; Williams is bossy, brassy, explosive, defensive, and, through it all, extremely lovable. Along with Jaja, Bea is the play’s oldest character, and for someone born in 1990, Williams is entirely convincing as a post-divorce, take-no-shit grande dame. When she visits her wrath on Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa) — a younger, hipper braider who may or may not be intentionally poaching Bea’s customers — people shrink in their seats.

These customers are also a great part of the play’s delight. Playing two separate trios of characters who come in throughout the day to get their braids done, Kalyne Coleman and Lakisha May are total scene-stealers. May has the audience shrieking as Vanessa, the World’s Worst Customer,™ who comes in loud, rude, and armed with all her own products; berates everyone; and then proceeds to fall asleep in Aminata’s chair. And Coleman is great fun to watch as Chrissy, who rocks up in denim booty shorts hung with gold chains and thigh-high heeled boots with built-in cargo pockets and asks to look just like Beyoncé. The incredible braided blonde waterfall Ndidi creates for her is just one of the show’s wigs that scores its own ovation.

About those wigs, created by hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis: They really are a technical marvel. Mathis and her team have constructed multiple versions of various looks at different stages in the braiding process, so the actors, who’ve obviously been through a bit of braiding boot camp, really can help to build the hairstyles onstage. Along with the bold, thoughtful costumes (full of sparkling character quirks and designed by Dede Ayite, a frequent collaborator of Bioh’s), the wigs are an indispensable part of the play’s texture. Bioh has written a colorful, tactile, and caring work, letting us in on both the beauty of the braiding process — the thrill when Jennifer’s mile-long micros are finally complete! — and the intense labor of it: When Miriam has finished, her fingers are covered in blisters. “At least they didn’t bleed this time,” she says stoically. “It’s fine. I’ll soak them when I get home.”

Jaja’s can sometimes veer a little formulaic or presentational: In the single-scene appearance of Jaja herself, Kakoma spends most of her time standing directly downstage center (in, not to spoil anything, an absolute battleship of a wedding gown), facing out and delivering a rousing monologue about her right to call America “my country.” It rings clear and true, though I wonder how the same speech would have felt had White oriented Jaja as much toward her fellow characters as toward us, or what its effect might have been in a theater space without such a flat, front-on relationship with the audience. But this isn’t subtle stuff, and it’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s bright, generous, and forceful, and those currents carry the day. As Miriam says, perhaps speaking partly for her playwright, “No more time for quiet. I want to be loud, yeah? … Yeah. Very loud.”