Thanks to Somalia Seaton’s new play Crowning Glory I know a lot more about black women’s hair than I did 24 hours ago. Performed on a triple-layered stage that slopes through the proscenium arch, an all-female cast play seven different types of women of colour. All have different attitudes towards their hair, and by extension their race. Running at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 9th November this is a comedy with bite that examines black female stereotypes.
This is Seaton’s first play and she has stuck to the old maxim write about what you know. As a twenty-something black woman she knows about her relationship with her hair. It is much more complicated than my relationship with my hair. A squirt of shampoo now and again and I’m done. Hair plays a much more important role in the lives of Seaton’s characters. The actors each give a monologue from the point of view of the type of woman they are playing, all of which are differentiated by their hair.
The stereotypes held up for examination are given names which include Bounty, Haircomb, Pickyead, Bal-ead and Halfbreed. As a non-black non-female I am uncertain how accurate these portrayals are, but judging by the howls of recognition amongst the audience Crowning Glory touches the nerves and speaks honestly to people who know their weaves from their locks.
Shared experience is the basis of observational comedy. Things are funny because we recognise that they are true. It works well, as Jerry Seinfeld’s bank balance shows. As a writer the main problem you have is if the audience doesn’t share the same experiences. Here I didn’t always even share the vocabulary. From the context I gather Blick Butters picky head self is rude. It might be extremely offensive, but I don’t actually know. Nappy appears to refer to something very different to the item used to house the lower regions of a baby.
There is no plot, rather Crowning Glory is a series of vignettes where one actor takes the lead and the others become a chorus, the star of each short piece changing from the drab clothes they have been wearing into something more exciting, and usually red. Lorna Brown gives a powerful performance as Panther, the most positive of the characters on show. To varying degrees the other characters are driven by anger and self-loathing, their monologues implying that their chosen appearances reflect negative issues about themselves and their desire to be seen as beautiful, as defined by Western popular culture. We are given the idea that this self-hatred begins when their mothers try to change their hair and moisturise their children’s faces with lightening cream.
J.D.’ Okhai Ojeikere’s photographs show that there are other factors that play into hairstyle choices. Some of his photographs of Nigerian hairstyles were on show recently at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In fact if you’re quick the show’s on until 24th November. Ah, Venezia, there is nowhere like it. Sorry, back to East London. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s photos showed hairstyles – some of which took weeks to complete – more exotic and outrageous than any seen in Crowning Glory. They show that different tribes favour different styles and record that hairstyles are used to show social position or even to celebrate special occasions. ‘Okhai Ojeikere has been active since the Sixties, in a land where the culture of advertising and magazines is very different to the UK. If changing hairstyles have been a big element of life in Nigeria for years then there are more factors involved than just a desire to appear similar to simplified rap video ideas of beauty.
The performance merges audiovisual with the theatre. Between the live scenes there are projections on big screens. These show vox pops interviews or spoof Youtube videos. These digital interruptions add to the sense that the audience is being lectured, especially when the cast sit down to watch them as well. Playing with stereotypes is a risky business and though I found much of the deliberately racial language uncomfortable most of the audience found the play hilarious. Certainly it looks at a serious issue, although the final scene is too didactic and hectoring. If it can help free people from distorted ideas of what constitutes beauty it will have worked and it is welcome to see theatre attempt to change opinions rather than just entertain.