Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s Jaja’s African Hair Braiding isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen on Broadway before. Directed by Whitney White, it’s not only a celebration of Black hair and beauty, but it’s also an ode to the unsung immigrant heroes and what they silently face on a daily basis. “At the time when I started thinking about this concept, we were in the midst of a different administration with 45. I was infuriated by the rhetoric he was putting out into the world about immigrants,” a freshly braided Bioh tells ESSENCE via Zoom. “It made me want to write a love letter to them,” the Ghanaian-American writer continues about the play that was produced by Taraji P. Henson. In short? Expect to laugh, cry, and everything in between throughout.
Jaja’s realistically encapsulates one day’s worth of work in a Harlem-based braid shop. Clients of all backgrounds come in asking for different styles: everything from sew-ins to micro braids. And if you’ve ever gotten micro braids, you know it’s a style that can take up to 12 hours. But how did they take coils from a mini fro to a head full of braids in just an hour and a half, you ask? A play that centers hair wouldn’t be complete without the right team, of course. Hair and wig specialist Nikiya Mathis, created the gorgeous, custom wigs—making it easy to transition and complete the looks on stage. But although the show includes the use of realistic wigs, there is still a good amount of braiding happening live. To help the actors learn the proper techniques was pro hair stylist and founder of braid shop, Hair By Susy, Susan Oludele. “I wanted to depict the magic of who we are as a people, what our hair can do, and certainly what a hair braiding shop is capable of,” Bioh– who grew up going to her aunt’s hair salon– says.
It may come as a surprise, though, that Bioh never expected to have a play on Broadway. Especially not one produced by someone like Henson. “It always felt like such a far-fetched idea,” the writer says. “It’s so rare that this happens for Black playwrights,” she expresses, adding that the last time this happened was 1991. “There’s definitely an unfortunate and bittersweet history attached to the opening of this show.” Aside from this, growing up, Bioh had dreams of becoming a dancer, “specifically a fly girl on In Living Color,” she says with a laugh. She pivoted into musical theater and acting in plays after the show went off air. It wasn’t until her junior year at Ohio State University that she began taking playwriting courses. After graduating, Bioh became known for off-Broadway works like School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, and Nollywood Dreams.
Now, with the opening night of Jaja’s upon her, and therefore an increasingly busy schedule, Bioh is taking her own self-care practices more seriously. Not to mention that she also recently gave birth to a newborn baby. Her go-tos? “I moisturize, I pray, and I hope for the best,” she says.
But above all, Bioh is, of course, most excited for people to come and see this incredible play. “I’m hoping audiences will leave with more empathy. I hope people will be inspired to go out into the world and make it better,” she says. “I of course want people to be entertained, too. I want everyone to have a good time and laugh,” Bioh adds. “I feel like if I ever get to a place where I’m not creating enjoyment for people, that’s when I would stop doing what I’m doing.”