Setting a play inside a hair salon isn't new: we've seen Southern charm in Steel Magnolias, intrigue in Shear Madness, an exploration of masculinity in Barber Shop Chronicles and murderous psychopathy in Sweeney Todd.
Yet playwright and comedian Trey Anthony gives us something new in her first theatrical play, ‘da Kink in My Hair, making its regional premiere at The Ensemble Theatre. Set inside a Jamaican hair salon in Toronto, though moved to Brooklyn during this Houston run, shop owner Novelette (An’Tick Von Morphxing) holds tight to West African traditions and superstitions as she coifs, curls and coaxes her customers into unloading their troubles and worries.
With an original score by Michael McElroy, Carol Malliard, E’Marcus Harper and S. Renee Clark, and musical direction by Melanie Bivens, the cultural references are established from the get go.
"The opening act is actually a Yorùbá prayer, a Yorùbá chant. I can’t get that opening out of my head," says Von Morphxing, adding that's not the only earworm in the show. "There’s a song that has the words 'Remember the place, remember the love that brought you to this place.' That tune with the words are so indicative of what that character is feeling."
Although the customers do open up and reveal their troubles to Novelette, it's also a play with plenty of comic relief. Anthony, who got her start on the Canadian comedy circuit and has written for The Chris Rock Show, is also the co-creator and writer for the television spinoff of 'da Kink on Global TV.
The script calls for an ensemble cast with a wide range of characters, portrayed in this production by Regina Hearne, Detria Ward, Jayla McDonald, Jannah Bryant, Crystal Rae, An’Gelle Sylvester, Samantha West and Annie Wild. But it's perhaps JoAnne Davis-Jones's character, the septuagenarian Miss Enid, who gets the most laughs when she sets her sights, and heart, on the next door neighbor.
"Her song is hard to get out of your head as well," says Von Morphxing, about the scene where Miss Enid sings about mixing a pie, full of double entendres. "It’s such a feel good song it just gets into your soul. It’s absolutely so cute. I can imagine my grandmother — anyone can imagine their grandmother — seeing their neighbor and wanting to cook them a pie."
Artistic Director Elieen J. Morris, who directs this production, says that Novelette uses those Yorùbá traditions to help her customers release those things that are holding them in bondage, that are keeping them from the opportunity to express themselves. Morris says the women's stories revolve around hope, healing, forgiveness, spirituality and understanding.
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"If [audience members] can't identify with one character, they know someone like it in their family. That's the beauty of what art does; art imitates life. It affords us an opportunity to look at things and find ways to heal. To get through and cleanse, so to speak, which is where the Yorùbá tradition and African deities come in.
While some of the actors move on and off the stage, as shop owner Von Morphxing's Novelette has to be in every scene. She also had to take a crash course in hair dressing. "A hair person has helped us be able to find ways to create magic with hair in less than a minute," says Morris, though it helps that the actor's grandmother was a hairdresser in real life.
"We’re excited about presenting [this season's regional premieres] to the city and to the state and providing opportunities for our audiences and artists to have a breath of New York and Chicago," adds Morris.
Performances of ‘da Kink in My Hair are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, September 20 through October 14, The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055, ensemblehouston.com, $35 to $44.