Barbershop stories, on stage

Fades & Fellowship is a live improv experience, rooted in social commentary. There are no actors and no script. It is a provocative, raw, and unforgettable experience that doesn’t end once the performance is over.

Where did the idea for Fades & Fellowship come from?

Through my social justice company, Takarka Brothers, I collaborated with Dr. LaMarr D. Shields (former professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Education and international leader on educational change.)

In 2013, we worked on a project in Haiti that was spearhead people who were the customers of Mr. Nelson, who had been Martin Luther King’s barber. We met with him and became friends.

Cut forward to 2016 and LaMarr tells me about an idea he has. LaMarr, who has been a TEDx speaker, noticed that there weren’t a lot of African American men involved with it. He realized that barbers, who are always telling tall tales and talking trash, are natural storytellers. Inspired by the Vagina Monologues, he thought he could create something like that. There was something there. We started volleying back and forth on what to do with this kernel of an idea he had.

How did things evolve?

We went to see Anna Deavere-Smith’s play, Notes from the Field. and she had this kind of community circle conversation during the intermission. It was heavy. Once the play was over however, it was over. Using this as a reference , we asked ourselves: what would have been the ask we would’ve made to the captive audience?

What if we did this thing where we put a bunch of barbers together and used Freddie Grey, which happened a year earlier, as a point of reference for conversation? This can’t just be a cool crazy theater thing, it has to have some impact.

[I said to LaMarr], “What if we had your boy Nelson, connect what’s been happening the last couple of years but linking it back to King in the '50s?” I called Nelson. He said, “If you can fly me and put me up, let’s get on with it.” It started to develop from there.

Dr. Martin Luther King's barber, Mr. Nelson Malden, talking backstage about the civil rights movement with Black Lives Matter leader, DeRay McKesson.

What came next?

We put out a call for barbers who wanted to do this project. From homophobia to child support to economics to police brutality, we put a list together of thirteen subjects and told them to pick whichever one they felt the most connected to and tell a story about it. You need to have some kind of structure, otherwise it could be unruly.

Assuming that most of these guys had never been on stage before, how did you coach them?

First, figure out the story. Ask them to tell you the story and get it down to 5-10 minutes. Only keep the things that are the most relevant; the most emotional touchstones in the story. You want the audience to feel something. Once you single those things out, you have to coach the person to feel comfortable in how to tell it. How to have an emphasis on certain words, when to pause so the audience can take it in. Let that linger in the air. Look the audience in the eye and pause. We also give them improv training and teach them to project their voice since there aren’t microphones.

How did you develop the social impact component?

70% African-American households don’t have fathers in the homes. We know where they are, they’re at barbershops! Any day, you’ll see a bunch of brothers in there, hanging out. If they’re there, then maybe there’s a way we can pair them with African-American males who might need a father figure in their life.

Then the question was, how do we do that? This became the inspiration of the whole project. It will be an art piece but have social impact component to it, which was the purpose of it in the first place.

L-R: Actor/Comedian Larry Lancaster, an audience member, and cast members Paul "Thee Barber" Jones and Larry Lewis.
@ Darius Wilmore

Given that you encourage audience participation, how do you make sure to not let it get out of control, to keep it moving?

We figured out from the start that we needed a ringer. Larry Lancaster, a comedian who has a lot of experience dealing with hecklers, is on stage the whole time. He plays a barber that’s so bad he doesn’t get customers. He’s just sitting there, reading his newspaper, talking trash.

Larry is like a drummer, keeping the rhythm. He can bring people back in but the audience isn’t aware of it.

Have any of the barber’s stories particularly moved you?

One of the barbers said, I’m giving these guys haircuts but some of them I’m cutting them open [like a mortician] after they get shot. We were like what? A cotton ball could’ve dropped and you would have heard it. His whole thing is probably the one thing that hasn’t left me since his first audition.

What you’ve learned, business-wise?

We’re still learning. The whole theater stuff was new to me and new to LaMarr. It’s been a steep learning curve to figure this out. How the numbers work has been a challenge; how do you monetize something like this? No one got paid the first time we did this thing. We all did it on the humble just to get it off the ground. We did get a small donation from someone who had a connection to African-American barber shops. He would go to barbers for advice so when this came across his desk and he felt connected to it. So sometimes you can find someone like that if you have great ideas.

Where does social impact fit in?

During the intermission in every show, we have a community conversation with trained facilitators to talk through what you’ve heard. The facilitator asks people in the group to pledge someone who they think would be a good mentor to African-American males. Then we find an organization that does that and they would be able to reach out, interview, and screen them. Once they’re vetted, they would be assigned to a barber shop in that city. That barber shop becomes a hub for years.

Have there been any success stories to date?

In addition to the hair cutting, there’s also usually a chess game going on. One of our barbers mentored a young African American boy after school, in his shop. He taught him to play chess. He’s gotten so good, he became a national chess champion.

How do you define a mentor?

To me, a mentor is being a positive presence in someone’s life. They’re a resource guide and sounding board about the path that they’re on, helping them steer down the right road. They give them the tools to help minimize the damage you think they might encounter. You’ve already seen the curves coming and you can at least tell them to buckle up. Don’t go down the road without your seatbelt on.

What’s next?

Raising capital. We need to raise a lot more money for this thing if we want to do it the way we feel it should be done. We need to level up the quality of the production, getting the barbers to take a 12-week improv training program, get lighting designers, etc.

Besides money, what’s one of your biggest challenges?

Trying to stay on top of nine barbers is like trying to manage the Wu-Tang Clan. That’s the running joke I’ve had with this whole thing. I have to sit backstage and babysit these cats to make sure they don’t wander off.

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