Above Manhattan, tucked right below Washington Heights, is the heart and soul of New York City, Harlem. It’s a special borough. Harlem's heartbeat is magical, from the hair-braiding shops, to the culture, to the food, to the stoops, and everything in between. Actor, playwright, and new mother Jocelyn Bioh has always known that magic lived inside the fingertips of her aunties (some related, some not) who braided hair in shops all over Harlem. She spent most of her life in those shops, listening, reveling, musing and now, she’s written the undeniable and brilliant Jaja’s African Hair Braiding and had it produced straight to Broadway, making history as the second play to do so by a Black playwright. The first? A little-known co-written play called Mule Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes written in the 1930s and produced by 1991.
Getting an African-centric, Harlem-based microcosm of a show produced on Broadway deserves a resounding standing ovation. With Jaja’s, Bioh wanted the viewer to know what life was like inside “the shop,” where the braiders come in by 9 am and leave by 9 pm or later. She wanted theatergoers to see more than a caricature of African women and the people who call Harlem home; Bioh shares stories of the terror of immigration, what it’s like for mothers to leave their children thousands of miles back home to make better lives for them in America, how it looks to hope against all odds for a bountiful life in the land of milk and honey. Jaja’s will make you laugh just as much as it makes you cry.
BET.com went to the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City to see Jaja’s African Hair Braiding shortly before its run ended and sat down with the writer, Jocelyn Bioh, to talk about the challenges she faced getting this very Black show to Broadway, why she wrote this play, the white gaze and more.
BET.com: What made you lean into the writing? You said you've always been a writer, but how did you get to a point where it felt like you could trust yourself or at least produce something that you didn't feel icky or skittish about?
Jocelyn Bioh: That's part of the issue because the stuff I was writing in grad school was trash. [laughs] It really was very bad because I was trying to write something that was not actually true to who I was. I was trying to write these kinda kitchen sink dramas that I thought all theatre had to be like–dramatic family stories and that's not where my voice lives. I'm a comedic writer. I'm a funny person. I'm really passionate about putting the diaspora on stage, all kinds of Blackness on stage.
And being first generation of course, there's a lot of comedy in my own culture and it was just about being [and] feeling bold enough and brave enough to do that. It wasn't always easy. All the things that people tell you when they read a play that is in an African country or deals with African people, any and everything from, ‘I don't know why everyone in your play is so happy because that's not what I read when I read about Africa’ to their own implicit biases about who we are as a people, the same thing that we have with poverty porn, sad stories, trauma that we bump up against so much because it's put out in the media about black stories. The same thing was applied to my work–the Africa, the comedy, they couldn't reconcile the two, which was fascinating. And so that is what made this whole road really challenging. But once one person gave me a shot to do it, and it worked out really well, it was almost like they were surprised.
BET.com: What made you sit down and write Jaja?
Jocelyn Bioh: I wrote the initial draft in 2019. We were in a very different time, a very different administration and there was a lot of rhetoric that was being pushed out there about the immigrant community. There was also only one face that was being attached to that rhetoric.
I grew up in New York and I’ve been in a braiding shop since I was four or five-years-old. Many of these women are African women who have come here in pursuit of an American dream, whatever that is. You can't demonize a whole community of people who come to this country and assume that they all have ill intent. It was really sad for me to see how scared they were. They had the news all day long; they can see all of the stuff that's being pumped out there. They see all the images of the ICE raids. It was really heartbreaking that they just wanted to come to work, braid hair, make money, provide for their families, both here and abroad. But they were also fearful that somebody might come and shake them down. I wanted to address that in some way.
But at the same time, I have a very ‘spoonful of sugar’ mentality with my work. So I was like, ‘Well, how can I still talk about all these things I want to talk about, but not make it feel like an essay?…’ and it was an enjoyable night at the theatre. And I was like, ‘I'm in the braiding shop, which is right for all things comedy and drama.’ So I just put those things together.
The initial draft, I wrote really fast. I write really fast, but feels like this play really wrote itself in a lot of ways. There was so many stories that I was pulling from, so many amalgams of people I was putting into each braider, each customer that really came together quickly.
BET.com: How did Jaja’s African Hair Braiding make it to Broadway?
Jocelyn Bioh: I did a reading of it for this theatre MTC (Manhattan Theatre Club) and very quickly after the reading, the woman who runs a theatre, Lynne Meadow, she pulled me up into the office 15 minutes afterwards and was like, ‘We have to do this play and we have to do it on Broadway!’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ I think I was expecting to do a lot of song and dance and convince them and push them. Sometimes work speaks for itself or you just need to give people a shot.
I think the part that was most surprising was being able to just do the play cold on Broadway. That is rare, rare, rare, rare! Most plays, especially plays written by people of color, start off Broadway or maybe even out of town somewhere. And these are all the classics, like Raisin In The Sun was not even a cold premiere on Broadway. They did a tour of it all over the country before they finally brought it to Broadway because they were like okay, well we've tested it out. So this is the first time, my play is the first time it's happened since 1991 for Black playwright. It was an old play written in 1935 by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, they co-wrote a play called Mule Bone. They had a falling out when they were working on the play and so it never got produced. It wasn't until 1991, the theater at Lincoln Center decided to produce it.
BET.com: Feels good to escape the white gaze, but what does a non-Black audience member get out of watching Jaja’s?
Jocelyn Bioh: I hope [that is] the kind of secret sauce to my work. That's why comedy is such a great equalizer; it's really a unifier. Everyone has experienced love, everyone's experienced heartbreak, everyone’s experienced grief and everyone will laugh, those things are for certain. So if you can put all of those things into play–if we could put two of those things in a play, great! If we could put all of them to play, even better. That’s what people connect to. These are regular, everyday women who are trying to make a living, trying to have a life; that is universal.
BET.com: What is your intention with Jaja’s?
Jocelyn Bioh: Always first and foremost, to entertain. I want to invite people into worlds and spaces and meet people that they never would have crossed before, or if they did, they never give them a second thought. Anybody who is working, living, passing through Harlem, if they see the show, they're never going to pass a hair-braiding shop and not consider the women in that shop ever again. And that's huge. That's major for me. So I think, if that's the one thing that feels intentional about the work, then I've done my job.
BET.com: How did you juggle new mommyhood with Jaja’s being produced at the same time?
Jocelyn Bioh: I'm grateful that I was healthy enough to bring a baby into this world. He was only six weeks old when I left to start rehearsal for the play. Crazy. I also don't think that I'm an exception. There's a lot of people who have a baby and then get up and go to work. I think it made me understand so many of the characters and my play…more.
BET.com: What does it mean to you to be able to expand stories like Jaja’s in this way?
Jocelyn Bioh: It feels like a really exciting responsibility. I feel like my purview of the world is very different, or not, because I'm first generation. So I come from two parents who came to this country from Ghana. And were like, ‘I want to make a better life here in America.’ But I also grew up here and I walk through the world as a Black woman in America. And so I see the world from what they believe America is and from what I know America is. It's a really exciting responsibility to take those ideologies, melt them together, put them in a play and hope that people can start to see a different perspective than their own.
BET.com: Jaja’s has since closed. What does that mean to you?
Jocelyn Bioh: It means…it's sad. I'm always sad at a closing. A moment like this, getting a play done, certainly getting a play done on Broadway, floats so far from any realm of possibility or reality. So it's really extraordinary. I will be sad, but I also am going to celebrate the impact that it had. My therapist is telling me to really work on acknowledging my wins. I want to acknowledge that it had an impact and it did its thing. A lot of people came and loved it and that's great. I'm gonna miss the play. I'm going to miss the shop a lot, but hopefully, I can get an opportunity to do it in another medium. Hopefully, the play will be done in other places all over the country. Hopefully, I can turn it into a TV show or movie or something. And when that opportunity comes, I'll be ready.
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