So, here’s to director Whitney White and the 10 blazing actors of this Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere, which had its official opening Tuesday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Led by Dominique Thorne as Jaja’s bright, underemployed daughter and Zenzi Williams as the salon’s temperamental senior hairdresser, the cast brings a buoyant, insouciant spirit to the bustle of a day in the life at Jaja’s. (The name is pronounced with hard J’s.)
New York City-born, Ghanaian American Bioh has tapped a deep comedic vein in plays set in West Africa and in the immigrant communities of her hometown. “Schoolgirls, or the African Mean Girls Play,” the 2017 seriocomedy that put her on the map, explored colorism and body image at a girls’ academy in Ghana; “Nollywood Dreams” followed in 2021 as a sendup of the Tinseltown aspirations of the Nigerian film industry.
As with her 2021 adaptation in Central Park of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Bioh shifts her gaze in “Jaja’s” to Manhattan and struggling working-class people from Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Her obvious affection for her characters is tempered in many instances by a recognition of their foibles: their vanity, their insecurities, their often petty competitiveness. In other words, they’re all patently human, and always theatrically so.
The playwright does at the end of this wickedly entertaining evening give in to the urge to highlight her characters’ plights a bit too baldly (sorry). Other than that, though, she and White so skillfully orchestrate her workplace comedy that you’re put in mind of the beauty parlor in “Steel Magnolias,” or, more potently, of a master such as August Wilson portraying the cabbies dispatched from a Pittsburgh storefront in “Jitney.”
In “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” we’re flies on the wall on a hot summer day in 2019, when the unreliable air conditioner — in a salon rendered by set designer David Zinn as a pink rotating box — heightens the tensions. Braiding with hair pieces of various lengths is labor-intensive and sometimes physically debilitating: the proceedings are therefore primed for irritability and occasional freakouts. (When a customer played by Rachel Christopher asks for micro braids, a style that takes all day to complete, the staff reflexively tries to hide.)
Just enough of the salon workers’ personal stories are elucidated to accommodate our inquiring minds: Aminata (Nana Mensah) and her troubled marriage; Miriam (Brittany Adebumola), who had to leave her daughter in Sierra Leone; Ndidi (Maechi Aharanwa), forced out of her old salon by a fire. Other customers, all played to the hilarious hilt by Kalyne Coleman and Lakisha May, are running jokes about the absurd expectations, highhanded demands and short fuses clients bring with them. (One of them cannot be dissuaded from the view that her artificial tresses make her a dead ringer for Beyoncé.)
Costume designer Dede Ayite devises looks for the women ranging from demure to outrageous. Playing all of the male characters — husbands, door-to-door salesmen, pitchmen on the salon TV — Michael Oloyede gets his own share of remarkable get-ups. But it’s Nikiya Mathis who is the design hero of “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding”: She’s the show’s hair and wig designer, responsible for the eye-popping assortment of African braids sported by the cast. The customer Zenzi Williams’s Bea has coming in late in the day is worth waiting for, with little cat-toy-like baubles in her hair and extensions of a hue better known in “Barbie” than in nature.
Bioh’s comedy is in service, though, of the more affecting characteristics shared by the women of “Jaja’s”: a stubborn resilience, a Chekhov-echoing faith that their taxing handiwork will pay off. This bittersweet facet of the play seems to betoken Bioh’s not-so-sunny perspective, which emerges as the 95 minutes of “Jaja’s” wind down, when she introduces a harsher reality.
It is Jaja herself, in the person of the effervescent Somi Kakoma, who bears the brunt. You sense in her fate the dramatist’s anger, as she pulls the rug of joy out from under “Jaja’s” and forces us to confront a colder truth about the dangers immigrants face. The customers’ braids may hold, it seems, even when the braider’s life unravels.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Whitney White. Set, David Zinn; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; music and sound, Justin Ellington; video, Stefania Bulbarella; hair and wigs, Nikiya Mathis. About 95 minutes. Through Nov. 5 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. manhattantheatreclub.com.