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'Cuttin Up': Barbershops on Stage

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

For years, journalist Craig Marberry jotted down every good story and joke he heard inside the barber shop. Marberry compiled all those gems in his book, "Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops." Now there's a new stage adaptation, and it's winning audiences in Washington, DC. NPR's Wilma Consul reports.

WILMA CONSUL reporting:

Craig Marberry likes to tell stories about black folk the way they tell it in the barber shop.

Mr. CRAIG MARBERRY (Journalist): Oral history to me is about capturing the stories of our times. You know, many people think history can only be told by academicians, historians, but I think real people and their stories bring history to life. And so many times, we marginalize them, but ordinary people have the most extraordinary experiences.

CONSUL: Marberry says in barber shops, African-American history is told with no boundaries. In the play "Cuttin' Up," black men go in and out of Howard's barber shop in Washington, DC. The owner boasts about the importance of his establishment.

(Soundbite of "Cuttin' Up")

HOWARD: Rand, I just had a thought. The barber shop is the final black frontier.

RAND: Oh, I like that.

HOWARD: It's the last public place the black man can go to be separate. Hmm, forget the Internet and here, people download a ton of information, too.

RAND: Download.

HOWARD: All kinds of grooming goes on.

CONSUL: The general public has had a pretty good idea of what goes on inside barber shops thanks to two barber shop movies and the Showtime series. The release of those blockbusters worried Marberry at first, but Marberry's editor convinced him that his stories take the audience deeper. Playwright and director Charles Randolph-Wright also had doubts about taking on the project. But reading the book shaved those doubts.

Mr. CHARLES RANDOLPH-WRIGHT (Playwright): There's one story especially in it where a character goes to this barber and says, `I want to bring my boys to watch you. I want to expose them to a black man doing something positive.' And I realized that I could take exactly what that character experienced and her question and her desire and put that on stage and give a complete audience that same experience.

(Soundbite of "Cuttin' Up")

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me. I've noticed the way you run your business, the way you talk to people, the way you always wear a suit and tie. Could I bring my boys by one afternoon to watch you?

HOWARD: Watch me? Why?

Unidentified Woman: I want to expose them to a black man doing something positive.

HOWARD: Yeah, that'll be just fine.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you. You have no idea what this means.

CONSUL: To Randolph-Wright, it means a goal accomplished. For a few moments on stage, he was able to show men of color all dressed in suits, dignified, respecting each other. It makes the barbers in the audience very proud of their chosen profession. Bruce Simms owns a barber shop in southeast Washington.

Mr. BRUCE SIMMS (Barber): We come to understand that we make an impact on society also and that we're no less than any other individual. It's just a chosen path, and we've chosen to go in that direction.

CONSUL: Simms and 29 other barbers and their families came from different states to see the sold-out opening show in November. The one who got the most attention is veteran barber from Nashville, Tennessee, and father of Oprah Vernon Winfrey.

Mr. VERNON WINFREY (Barber): People are still coming to me. Now I think because Oprah has done so well, they think I have the answers to everything because I'm Oprah's father.

CONSUL: Vernon Winfrey says while he doesn't have all the answers, he has the energy to keep cutting nice displays on people's heads in his shop for a long time.

Mr. WINFREY: Yes, that's my slogan. I tell them I'm 72 but I'm not through.

CONSUL: "Cuttin' Up," the play, has received mixed and sometimes unfavorable reviews from critics, but the audience, many of whom are coming to the theater for the first time, keeps packing the house. The same thing happened to the musical adaptation of Craig Marberry's first book "Crowns: Black women and their Church Hats." "Crowns" went on tour and sold out shows in every venue. Director Charles Randolph-Wright was not part of "Crowns." He says he stopped reading reviews years ago because he found that most critics do not understand an experience different from theirs.

Mr. RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: Luckily, our ammunition is that we have extraordinary word of mouth. So, you know, it would be nice if the critics respond to it, but I think the audience will take this to another place.

(Soundbite of "Cuttin' Up")

HOWARD: It's true what they say. Clothes don't make the man. The barber makes the man. I look at these walls, I see so many customers. I see my history in here, my hair-itage. Oh, I need to write that down.

CONSUL: "Cuttin' Up" will be at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, until January 1st. For NPR News, I'm Wilma Consul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wilma Consul