Knowing Hollywood and network television, where imitation remains the sincerest form of profit-taking, American viewers are probably going to have a lot more opportunities in the near future to visit at least a simulation of an African-American barbershop. Maybe more than that: Someone must have already considered merging the Barbershop phenomenon with reality TV.
Given the current state of affairs, something like “The Barbershop Channel” even isn’t out of the question. Put it next to CSPAN–where it belongs–and you’d have live, ongoing coverage of two deliberative bodies. When viewers got tired looking at tight white guys speaking in diplomatic tongues, they could flip the channel and watch the barbershop congress really break it all down. Let the ratings decide who’s doing the better job.
Barbershops are going to be big. It’s why I’m particularly glad I caught Durham playwright Howard L. Craft’s The House of George now.
It’s Craft’s first play, and speaking frankly, the last time an initial opus demonstrated this much promise, Shakespeare & Originals was taking out full-page ads for A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti, Michael Smith’s brilliant political vaudeville in May 2000.
Despite its timing, House didn’t jump on any Barbershop bandwagon. Craft, a poet and Operation Desert Storm veteran, wrote the work over a year ago, and it won N.C. Central University’s New Play Project Competition last December. Then it was slated for production this fall.
The world premiere closed last weekend, but the show’s going on the road. N.C. Central is presenting the production in the regional competition of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Nov. 7, in Greensboro. Should the play pass that test, it will play at the finals in Washington, D.C.
Craft’s play documents, at times with brutal frankness, the uneasy transitions in one man’s life, in a particular African-American neighborhood and in African-American culture as a whole, seen in a small barbershop in a place that looks a lot like Durham’s Hayti community. George, a complex, irascible, divorced ex-military barber who rules his “house” with a suffer-no-fools attitude, compares the “paradise” the neighborhood was with what it has become:
It was bound to happen, once they built that highway through here. Urban development my ass. They knew black folk down here was makin’ too much money that they couldn’t get they hands in. If a cracker don’t know nothin else, he know ’bout a dollar. […] Integration started it, and that highway finished it off.
From the opening it’s evident. The central character has a mouthful of strong opinions and a willingness to back them up with threats. George is a fundamentally frustrated character who’s put 30 years into his barbershop, and who now fears it’s all coming apart. By the time we meet him, he has acquired a deepening mistrust of the world outside the door, a colorful lexicon of prejudice, and a cynic’s view of religion.
When a preacher questions his attitude, George notes that the church is “the biggest black business around here,” before concluding, “If you can get folk to believe it’s gon be ar-right in the sweet bye and bye and turn a profit doing it, hey, more power to you.” When the reverend further questions what George thinks, he replies, “I don’t think nothing. I know what the church is about. Same thing this barbershop is about, ‘cept round here we don’t claim it’s no blonde, blue-eyed white man hanging on no cross. Round here we say it’s green and looks a lot like what you take up in them plates on Sunday.”
After an older patron at the shop dies, George says, “I hope I’m next. … I want to go right up to God, look that cracker dead in his face and say, ‘What the hell did I ever do to you? What is it about me that make you want to mess up my life, my daddy’s life, my mama’s life, this neighborhood–what did we do?’”
George has further woes: a nagging cough that will not go away, an intergenerational conflict with a slack younger barber, and a possibly fatal case of self-loathing. Lem, an old guy who hangs around the shop comments on it with Thin, George’s right-hand man. “If you put your hand on the stove top and it burn you, you ain’t gon put your hand back on it,” Lem says. Thin replies, “That’s only if you don’t like the feeling you get from your hand burning.”
Craft has yet to fully master what at times are obvious plot devices. Still, while George mounts a soapbox more than once, he generally has something worth hearing when he gets there. One of House’s major triumphs involves getting us to empathize with a largely unsympathetic character.
In this script and this production, George (played brilliantly by Gil Faison, directed well by Karen Dacons-Brock) comes off as an African-American man pushed to the wall, one with no other choice in his mind but to push back. In a lifelong miscalculation, he’s pushed everyone away, man and God included. The consequences of that, for a man and a culture, are explored in this gritty, absorbing play.