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In ‘Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,’ playwright Jocelyn Bioh achieves ultimate balance

Set in a Harlem-based African braiding salon, Bioh’s comedy blends humor and sincerity, familiarity and hyper-specificity and a micro story with macro issues.

Jocelyn Bioh (Credit: Joshua Bright)

It’s fall 2023. As the lights rise on the Samuel J. Friedman stage, a scrim decorated in an array of braid styles lifts to reveal a padlocked, steel rollup gate beneath a yellow plastic awning that reads “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.” One beat into the show it was already clear: This is New York City. 

As designer David Zinn’s set rotated to display the interior of this braiding salon and the cast of women braiders trickled in to start their workdays, audiences became immersed in Harlem — in this distinct braiding shop — but it was also Every Salon, USA. Though frequenting a braiding shop is an experience specific to the Black community — particularly Black women — playwright Jocelyn Bioh created an atmosphere through these characters, their speech patterns, camaraderie, rivalries, gossip, that television playing soaps in the background that is familiar to the masses.

“I think that’s what people connected to with the play on Broadway, that there is a real rich universality to these spaces — and not just Black women,” Bioh told Broadway News. “There were people who were like, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what happens when I go get my hair done at drybar or wherever — or even guys who are like, ‘This is exactly like our barbershop.’”

Bioh’s play, informatively titled “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” opened cold on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre on October 3, 2023. The comedy chronicles a single day in a Harlem braid spot, populated by the stylists (many of whom are African immigrants) and their assorted clientele. The production marked Bioh’s Broadway debut, though she has been an acclaimed and decorated playwright since the premiere of her “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” in 2017.

As with “School Girls,” Bioh fuses laugh-out-loud entertainment with heartfelt meaning. “I’m a comedic writer, but all of my storytelling is rooted in truth,” she said. “Some of that truth is really funny — when you see it and recognize it, you can’t help but laugh out of recognition. And then some of that truth is actually really devastating and catches you emotionally at some point. That’s the kind of space I live in.”

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