Fusing House, Voguing, Waacking, African and contemporary movement, Uchenna Dance’s The Head Wrap Diaries takes the audience on a colourful and joyful hair journey.
‘Is it unbearable?’ Every three months, my hairdresser would peer into my eyes, raising her voice above the whirr of blow-dryers and the thump of reggae to ask an impossible question. I never knew how to answer. Quantifying something as physical as pain always feels futile, but the question struck me as especially ridiculous in a hair salon. I was relaxing my hair, straightening the kinks and coils out of my Afro with the help of a chemical paste plastered onto my roots. Only when the pain became unbearable could the chemicals be rinsed off – leaving me with dead straight locks but questionable judgement. On these Saturday mornings, my hairdresser’s chair briefly turned into a psychoanalytic couch, her ‘unbearable’ test a quarterly existential question. What am I doing here? What’s wrong with my hair? What is wrong with me?
The tensions surrounding black hair could easily be interpreted through introspection, but The Head Wrap Diaries prioritises dance over language to externalise the experience of learning to love your hair. Choreographed by Vicki Igbokwe, founder of Uchenna Dance, the performance is a funny and affirming meditation on what hair means to black women.
The stage opens with a tapestry of colour laid out on the floorboards as three female dancers kneel in a wordless ritual, a coronation, perhaps. Except in this world, they crown themselves, with vivid patterns that extend across the stage, carpeting the ground beneath them. Fusing ‘House Dance, Waacking, Vogue, African and contemporary dance’, there is joy, grace and strength in every move – more Voguing than hand-wringing. Athletic and assertive, the trio take us on a hair journey that’s relatable for anyone for whom the term ‘hair journey’ means something. A girl being teased for her puffy pigtails, a 10-year-old fantasizing about long blonde hair to swing behind her, or avoiding the fiery tug of her mother’s comb. The performance’s most special moments happen when movement conjures up a feeling you can sense immediately – like the staccato, electric rhythm of an angry mother’s hand, miming an invisible comb through her daughter’s tangled strands.
We hear from women who wear wigs and weaves, although less to justify their choice than to simply introduce themselves before they take to the stage and slay. At points, it’s unclear why Igbokwe and co-writer Bola Agbaje thought the performance needed language – the choreography is far more engaging than the script, which often feels loose and repetitive. The monologue by Florence Russell, a 70-year-old Jamaican woman waiting for an appointment, does bring a flash of poetry. Witty and fierce, she defends the only hairstyle she can accept at her age – a perm – until the chemicals scald her scalp. This quick, explosive transition brought back memories of sitting in my hairdresser’s chair, enduring the irony of a process that was the opposite of relaxing.
The performance explores hair as a medium of self-expression, but never really ventures deeply beyond the physical and into the philosophical. This is part of its charm, but also leaves you wanting more. The closing scene, as the dancers adorn themselves with head wraps once more and repeat words likes ‘ancestry,’ ‘motherland’, ‘bold’ and ‘beautiful’, slips into cliché.
Still, the performance raises important questions on the styles we choose to validate. I couldn’t help but notice that in an otherwise flawless celebration of black culture, the spectacle that was #Beychella featured no women with natural hair – at least not from the vantage point of my kitchen table. In a performance lauded as ‘unapologetically black,’ I wondered why natural black hair failed to make the cut.
While The Head Wrap Diaries does not delve deeply into the politics of black hair, it does celebrate the versatility of styles we can wear. Foregrounding hair as a means of self-expression and identity, it leaves the soul-searching up to the audience. More captivating in its choreography than in its narrative, the power of the performance is rooted in movement, in a wordless rhythm that captures the role our hair plays as we move through the world.
Uchenna Dance’s The Head Wrap Diaries was performed at The Place on 20th April. The next performance will be on 14th July at The Courtyard Theatre, Hereford. For more information about the company and future shows see here: http://uchennadance.com