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Making Hair Magic in ‘Jaja’s African Hair Braiding’

Wig designer Nikiya Mathis, director Whitney White and actors Brittany Adebumola and Maechi Aharanwa share design secrets, tales from braiding bootcamp and intricacies of plaiting illusions.

(L-R) Kalyne Coleman as Michelle and Maechi Aharanwa as Ndidi in “Jaja's African Hair Braiding,” 2023 (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

From the title alone, it’s clear that the hair in Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” stands front and center. Accordingly, director Whitney White (who is making her Broadway debut with the Manhattan Theatre Club production) ensured that everyone involved knew that hair and wig design was the top priority. 

“When I was putting the design team together, we did not do business as usual,” White told Broadway News. “Very often, productions typically start with scenic [design], then lighting, then sound, then anything else.” But “Jaja’s” chronicles one day in a Harlem braiding shop, exposing the drama amid a group of African immigrant hair braiders and their customers. 

“Because this was so baked [into] the heart of the piece,” White continued, “Jocelyn and I wanted to get talking with [hair and wig designer] Nikiya [Mathis] as soon as possible. She was the first name before anyone else’s.” 

White, Bioh and Mathis had their first production meeting in early November 2022, which gave them adequate time to invest in the complexity of the styles, wigs and hair pieces necessary for “Jaja’s” to portray a full day at a salon in 90 minutes. “It was also a signifier to the institution that, ‘Hey, this is going to be an important line item. We can’t second-guess it. We can’t penny-pinch here,’” said White. 

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