It's been more than a year since I stepped into a barbershop to get a haircut. I made a personal decision in August 2015 to take a chance on myself and grow my hair out and see what the results would be, and honestly, my decision has had its share of ups and downs.
An up: I don't have to spend my Saturday mornings waiting for a cut in a long line
A down: I don't have the patience to try and style up my afro every other day.
When I walked out after my last trip to the barbershop, I thought I was only giving up early morning pop-ups. But I was wrong, I gave up more than that. I gave up a place where I could hear and share honest conversation, a place where black men don't have to code switch. But seeing "Fades & Fellowship" last November at The Motor House made up for all that lost time.
"Fades & Fellowship," which is happening again at the Motor House on March 25, is a theatrical commentary on social injustice and other issues that African-American people face in America. Co-producers Darius Wilmore and LaMarr D. Shields cite the storytelling style of "The Vagina Monologues" and first-person set-up of TEDx Talks as inspiration for the production, which invites 13 African-American barbers from Baltimore to share their experiences on history, culture, race, community, relationships, homophobia, and more.
Having black barbers tell their stories themselves was important to Wilmore and Shields.
"You'd have a lot of black men putting their own voice out there, and that's one place you can hear us kind of speaking freely, is in a barbershop," Wilmore said.
Outside of this production, Wilmore is also the co-founder and creative director of Taharka Brothers Ice Cream Co., a Baltimore-based social justice-centered business. Shields is not only the executive producer of "Fades & Fellowship," but he is also an author and motivational speaker inspiring youth, especially in Baltimore, with a focus on social consciousness. Wilmore and Shields produced a space for the barbers to tell their truths through thought-provoking storytelling.
At the November performance, the set built for "Fades & Fellowship" drew me in first. Set designer Kendra Banks did a great job recreating the black barbershop, with authentic chairs and mirrors, as well as traces of black history all throughout the set, such as African masks placed on the makeshift walls, pictures of the Black Power movement, and a black-and-brown color scheme. The capes, the barber's tools, the broom and dustpan off to the side, and the tile floor all added a realness to the production.
One barber, Ashwin Ferguson, who has 32 years of experience in cutting hair, focused on the history and culture of Baltimore, and the role of the black barbershop in the community, during his part of the production.
"It's our responsibility as men in the barbershop to share the knowledge—our knowledge of the world to young people, to our people," said Ferguson. "Educate—we must educate."
One of the notable members of the cast of Fades & Fellowship was Nelson Malden. Malden operated a barbershop in Montgomery, Alabama, where he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953 and started cutting his hair. Malden, who is 81 years old, retired last year after cutting hair for about 68 years.
"I thought I would bring the story that I held the head of one of the most historical figures of the 20th century by me being his barber in Montgomery, Alabama," Malden told me before the show.
In his monologue, Malden shared his experiences about meeting King, sharing anecdotes that not everyone knew—Malden talked about the last year of King's life, how he suffered from depression. Malden also reflected on his experiences from the civil rights era including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King's interactions with Lyndon B. Johnson over voter's rights. and the politics of war, economics. and social injustices during that period.
What I took away from "Fades & Fellowship" was the truth and brotherhood these black men offered. The cast of Fades & Fellowship let everyone who never stepped foot inside a black barbershop have a sneak peek into the culture of the barbershop, expressing their experiences as times change with a great deal of emotion and honesty.
One of the goals Wilmore had in mind was that Fades & Fellowship could inspire people to mentor youth from the black community.
"We talked about having maybe a goal of 50 pledges every show. And I would love, if we could do it, [to] over time track these mentor/mentee relationships over a span of 10 years and see if we had made some impact as a result of these performances," said Wilmore. "Having some direct social impact from the show is a goal."