Jocelyn Bioh’s first taste of the theater was in a 15-minute-long high-school production of The Lion King. She played Rafiki, an eccentric baboon shaman. “I just remember the roar of the audience,” says Bioh. “We had a three-minute standing ovation. I just thought it was the best feeling ever.”
Since then, Bioh, 40, has performed in several productions, both on and off Broadway; worked in the writers’ rooms for Spike Lee’s TV adaptation of his movie She’s Gotta Have It and the mini-series Tiny Beautiful Things; and written several critically acclaimed plays, including an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, for the 2021 run of Shakespeare in the Park.
Her latest play, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, will go into previews on September 12 and make its Broadway premiere at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on October 3. It’s been a busy few months for Bioh—earlier this summer, while preparing the show, she welcomed her first child with her husband, the actor Austin Smith.
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding portrays a single day inside a Harlem braiding salon run by West African immigrants. It’s a joyful, human story. “In terms of the world of this play, I’ve been inhabiting it since I was a child,” Bioh explains. “I spent most of my life in a hair-braiding salon.”
Bioh was born in Washington Heights to Ghanaian immigrants, both of whom worked several jobs to support their three children. Growing up, money was tight, and her family couldn’t afford to see the Broadway shows taking place just a few miles away. Instead, Bioh watched old sitcoms, such as I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. With their live studio audiences and laugh tracks, the shows were Bioh’s first introduction to comedic theater.
“I spent most of my life in a hair-braiding salon.”
As a child, Bioh dreamed of becoming a dancer. Specifically, she wanted to be a Fly Girl on In Living Color, a 90s sketch-comedy show that featured a primarily Black cast. Though the show went off the air in 1994, when Bioh was just 11, her love of dance continued, and, eventually, led her to the world of theater. “[Dance] was my portal in,” Bioh says. “I realized how much I loved all aspects of theatrical performance, including singing and dancing and acting.”
Bioh found her way to playwriting almost by accident. At Ohio State University, as an undergraduate, it was difficult to pursue her passion for the stage. The theater program cast by type, which meant students of color were often excluded or confined to lesser parts. She enrolled in a playwriting course to compensate. At the end of the year, Bioh’s professor told her she had a future in writing. Following the professor’s advice, in 2006, Bioh enrolled in Columbia’s graduate program for playwriting.
There, she wrote several dramas full of pain and tragedy. There was only one issue: “The plays were really terrible,” Bioh says. While she had learned the correct techniques for writing, she hadn’t found her voice.
In 2010, when she was cast in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Neighbors, she finally had the financial stability to focus on writing as a career. She began asking herself, “What stories do I want to put out into the world?” She started writing “comedies that centered [on] African people.”
Her breakout play, School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, produced by MCC Theater in 2017, couldn’t be more different than the kitchen-sink dramas of her graduate-school years. It’s an irreverent comedy about students at a Ghanaian all-girls boarding school who compete in a beauty pageant.
In her debut, as with Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, the characters are predominantly female. “To be able to highlight as many [Black] women as I could felt like such a wonderful challenge and thing to do,” Bioh says. “I just love us—I love Black women; I love who we are; I love what we bring into the world. I hate how disrespected we are.” Jaja’s African Hair Braiding “allows audiences an opportunity to leave their implicit biases aside and just fall in love with who we are as people.”
While Jaja’s African Hair Braiding deals with the weighty issue of immigration, it’s very funny. Humor is what grounds Bioh’s stories, and paves the way for poignancy. “Comedy is just a funny way of being serious,” says Bioh, quoting the British actor Peter Ustinov. “That is probably my tagline for everything.”
Most of all, Bioh wants to tell a new kind of African story—one that’s focused not on war, disease, or pain, but instead portrays the more joyful, nuanced narratives of African and Black life. “As long as these fingers want to keep going, I will try to do my best to show that there’s everyday joy that exists in African people and African life.”
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding is in previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, in New York, beginning September 12, and premieres on October 3
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Paulina Prosnitz is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL