Interview: Jocelyn Bioh on the Success of JAJA'S AFRICAN HAIR BRAIDING & Broadway Representation

Bioh discusses how Jaja's African Hair Braiding impacted audiences, and much more.

By: Apr. 23, 2024
Interview: Jocelyn Bioh on the Success of JAJA'S AFRICAN HAIR BRAIDING & Broadway Representation
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Jocelyn Bioh's play Jaja's African Hair Braiding had its world premiere on Broadway this fall at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where it experienced a celebrated, twice-extended run. The play, a vibrant, funny, and meaningful look into a day in the life of the West African immigrant hair braiders in a hair braiding shop in Harlem, was just nominated for three Drama League Awards, and two Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The play is also set to launch a multi-city tour this fall. 

BroadwayWorld spoke with playwright Jocelyn Bioh about her inspiration for the play, why the success of the play was so meaningful, her organization Black Women on Broadway, and much more. 

Your play Jaja’s African Hair Braiding had an incredibly successful run on Broadway. I would love to hear about what inspired you to write this play.

So many things. First of all, I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Washington Heights, I now live in Harlem. And I grew up going to hair braiding shops, I’ve probably been getting my hair braided since I was four or five years old. And that’s a universal thing, I think, for a lot of people, going to the hair salon, or maybe there’s a tradition of getting their nails done with their sister, or their mom. A hair braiding salon is truly like a second home to me. So, I’ve always known how ripe it was with story and characters, the people coming in and out, the people who work there. They’re rich, vibrant places, and being able to write a story about it felt like a really exciting one.

I also felt like when I wrote the play, which was in 2019 initially, we were in a very unique place in America of how we were discussing immigration, and who “belonged here” and I wanted to have my own answer to that. Obviously, I write comedic plays, so the marriage of both, that’s what Jaja’s was born out of, the marriage of these things that I wanted to express. It’s really a love letter to all those African hair braiding ladies. They really are lifesaving, beautiful humans.

When it comes to plays, what does your writing process look like? Are you inspired by something specific? Do you have multiple ideas in your mind, and you think, ‘now is the right time for this one?’

Any time I get inspired, any time I get any sort of idea of something that could be a piece of work, a play, a film, even cold writing a pilot for a TV show, I just put the proverbial pen to paper— because it’s really fingers to keyboard, I don’t write anything anymore physically [laughs]— but I just go. I wish I had one of those practices that other writers I admire have, where maybe they wake up at 8am, and they make a tea, and they write their inspirations down, they watch the sunrise or something like that. It’s not as romantic to me. I kind of throw together a bowl of cereal, I sit down, and I’m like, ‘Let’s see what comes out today,’ and if that’s one page or 50, that’s what it is until the next time I sit down to write. I really wish I had more of a process. I think only in the case of me having a hard deadline to follow is when I’m the most disciplined [laughs]. But outside of that, it’s when I feel inspired.

This play was extended on Broadway twice, what do you think it was about this play that resonated with audiences and how did it make you feel to know that it was resonating?  

Mostly I think I was thrilled by the audience that was coming. I think most of us that work in the theatre, onstage, behind the scenes, or around it in any sort of way, know what the typical Broadway theatre audience is, and Jaja’s African Hair Braiding did not have the typical Broadway audience. We were able to reach so many people I think because, like me, they also shared and had some sort of ownership of this story. They related to it in some way, whether they’ve been a customer at a hair braiding shop as many times as myself, or just once, or they knew people affiliated with one, or knew people like the characters in the play. It was kind of the definition of a term that has been used over and over again now, representation mattering.

When people learn that there is a story about them, in this case, black women learning that there’s a story about them being told on a Broadway stage, they will come running. Everyone wants to come and enjoy and have a good time, and be in fellowship and community with their community. So, that was a huge part of why we extended. It was not the typical Broadway audiences, it was people who had heard about the show, and wanted to come. And there was not one night that I sat in the audience that I wasn’t completely moved by how many people this play had reached. So, I was not surprised this play had extended twice. We would have extended again, we could have extended all the way to the new year with the way ticket sales were going, but because of how MTC has their season structured we just couldn’t. To me, that was a huge mark of success. Today we’re in a day and age in which we see so many Broadway shows struggling to stay open, that was not the case with us. We really hit a magical mark in terms of audience, and cultivating an audience that wanted to come see the show.

It just goes to show that we really need voices like yours, and more diversity, more representation, because people will come. It’s important, and it must feel incredible to know that you are a part of that.

It was a great feeling, I can’t lie! I love the theatre, I love what we do. I’ve been on Broadway before as an actor in a show that was very successful, and it moved people in a way that was surprising to some. People walked in expecting the story to be one way and walked out having experienced something else. And I think that is kind of our goal as artists, to always have audiences come in feeling like that was an experience that they can’t get enough of and maybe want to go and buy another ticket to another show to try and get that same experience again. That’s all we can hope for. And I was glad that Jaja’s was a small part of someone else’s Broadway excitement.

You also run the organization Black Women on Broadway. Can you tell me more about the organization and about what it means to you to be a part of that?

Black Women on Broadway was co-founded by myself, the actress Amber Iman, and actress-producer Danielle Brooks. We wanted to create an organization that centered on having free mentorship events, fellowship events, and cultivation events that centered on black women in the theatre, both on and off Broadway. We have so many organizations that do so much to uplift our community, and we saw a boom of them in 2020 when our country was really face on with a racial reckoning. Our mission is to celebrate black women in theatre, and any sort of events that we have, they’re all free, and all women can feel accepted and loved in this community.

We have our flagship event, which is our Black Women on Broadway Awards celebration that happens every June, usually the week before the Tony Awards. We are deep in the midst of planning it right now, and those awards honor three black women who have worked in our industry for a short time, or a long time, to honor their accomplishments, and also to invite people who were a part of the theatre season each year, we keep a detailed list of every single black woman who was involved in a show both on and off Broadway. We invite as many of them as we can to have a celebration for them during the awards season.

So often we are ignored, whether it be in big awards or smaller ones, so to have a yearly event that celebrates us, our accomplishments, our achievements, and what we bring to this multi—billion dollar industry for New York City, is really important. We are thrilled to be in our fourth year operational, third year doing the awards celebration, and we hope that people will continue to donate to us so we can keep having all of these events and mentorship programs.

In addition to theatre, you are also writing for film and television. How does it feel for you to be able to work in so many facets of entertainment as a writer?

It’s a thrill. It’s a thrill to work in TV and film. Being able to express my artistry as a writer in multiple mediums is really a privilege, because I know that’s not an opportunity that everybody gets, and I’ve been very, very fortunate. I love being able to collaborate with other artists, especially in a writer’s room when you’re working on a television show, to get to create something that is very different from what I normally write about.

The things I’m passionate about writing are very specific in terms of my plays, and even my own films or pilots of television shows. But some of the shows that I’ve worked on that were not my creations, like Russian Doll or She’s Gotta Have It, or Tiny Beautiful Things, and then there’s a Star Wars show I worked on that’s going to come out in June called The Acolyte, they’re very different from where my center of gravity is as an artist and a writer. So, being able to explore and push and challenge myself is exciting.

Is there anything creatively and professionally that you haven’t done yet that you’ve set your sights on or that you’d like to do?

Probably some sort of solo show. I’m also an actor, and it was when I was in my senior year of college that I started writing. It was not something that I’ve always done. And my professor was like, “I think you’ve got a really good ear for dialogue; I think writing is something you should continue to pursue.” And so, I had this whole crazy story of how I got into Grad school, because I applied to some schools as a writer, and some schools as an actor, and then when I got into all the schools I got into, I just made a decision basically, and was like, “You know what? I think I’m going to study playwriting,” I got into Columbia, and I knew I wanted to come back home to New York. I was at Ohio State for undergrad.

I thought I was going to write solo shows. I had so many of these artists who I really looked up to, Charlayne Woodard, and Sarah Jones, and Anna Deavere Smith, even Whoopi Goldberg, her show from the 80s, I just loved these shows, and I really thought that was what I was going to do. I thought that was going to be my career! And I have not done that at all! So, I think I want to give it a try.

Photo credit: JD Barnes