“What’s wrong with my hair as it is?” – A review of Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories

An image showing one of the ways the performers choreographed hair care and hair styling during the show. Photo by James Morgan Owens
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By Lynnette Jackson

I want to start off this review by saying that the show that I had the pleasure of attending, Hair and Other Stories, is not for everyone. The show was performed by the Urban Bush Women (UBW), a company whose mission is best described by their core values: to (1) “help people make sense out of the world and prepare to take action in it”, (2) “offer bold and provocative viewpoints in our performance work”, and (3) “encourage critical, creative and reflective thinking.” The company achieves this goal by performing in various communities around the world and performing in shows that increase social justice consciousness while “highlighting the power, beauty and strength of the African Diaspora.” While this show may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I strongly believe that everyone who attended this performance gained something from the experience. With that in mind, I encourage readers to check out UBW shows in your area and witness the artistry that they shared with us in Berkeley. Additionally, I have linked some articles that help provide some context for those who would like to learn more about hair and the black community. 

An image depicting the performers during one of the first dances of the show. The dancer in the front is using a long piece of fabric to depict long, straight hair. The use of fabric to portray different hair styles was a consistent and interesting detail throughout the show. Photo by Alec Himwich.

Hair and Other Stories uses the complex relationship between black women and their hair to explore racism in modern society. The show implicitly and explicitly discussed this using song, dance, and monologue. What was really wonderful about the show is that it struck a balance between introducing both the cultural significance of hair for the black community and the way that hair is weaponized against the black community. Black audience members could feel seen while non-black audience members could gain a more tangible understanding of what black people experience daily. The performers acknowledged this during their affirmations before the show began. This was the first interactive portion of the show because they invited women from communities of color and the white community to stand in turn. While each group of women were standing, the performers set the tone for the show with affirmations and invitations to investigate their societal assumptions and norms that are deeply rooted in misogynoir. 

The first half of the show very explicitly introduced the audience to the complex relationship between black women and their hair. Over the course of multiple interpretive dance performances, the audience was introduced to the tools used to style hair such as rat tooth combs, hot combs, hair oils, and detangling products. The dancers also defined commonly used terms such as the kitchen (the hairs at the nape of a person’s neck) or baby hair/edges (the shorter, often softer, hair at the periphery of one’s head) to ensure that everyone was on the same page for the remainder of the show. One of the really memorable dance pieces portrayed the core steps of the black hair care routine: moisturizing, detangling, and styling. 

There were also interpretive dances and monologues about the pain that comes with relaxing, straightening, or braiding one’s hair. Getting braids and other protective styles is often a painful process, however, this pain pales in comparison to the pain of chemically or mechanically straightening hair. Two methods have historically been used to obtain desirable, straight hair: mechanically straightening hair using hot combs, and chemically relaxing hair. Each straightening method has its pros and cons but both cause long-term damage. Additionally, if performed incorrectly, these straightening methods can cause painful burns for the person getting their hair styled. Both methods for straightening hair were discussed and portrayed but the performers took things a step further by asking why these harmful methods are being used in the first place. In other words, what is conforming to societal beauty standards worth and what will it take for people to stop conforming? 

The show then progressed to the deeper cultural significance of hair for black women. The performances from this part of the show drove home the point that hair is extremely important in the black community and that hair has been a tool for oppressing black people. The show pulled no punches as they played clips from interviews with people who have faced hair discrimination in the workplace and monologues about how black hair is never considered good enough. One of the performers even led a monologue that silenced the audience where attendees were encouraged to say the other N-word: nappy. If you’re not familiar with this derogatory term, it is used to describe the fine, curly nature of black hair in a way that others and excludes it from the curly hair category. One of the quotes that really stood out was from an interview with a soldier after discriminatory hair guidelines were released: “What is wrong with my hair as it is?”

An image depicting one of the performers executing a high kick. Photo by Hayim Heron

During intermission, audience members who remained in the theater watched interview clips. The clips featured women describing their hair journey and what went into their decisions to cut most of their hair or stop straightening their hair. Because hair plays such a large role in the black community, people found that these decisions were not easy and carried a lot of weight. This led to the final two performances of the show, which were more abstract than the pre-intermission performances. There was a performance that was dedicated to the ferocity with which black women wash everything- their clothes, their bodies, their homes, and their hair. Washing was alluded to in the first half of the show but the performance in the second half of the show really underscored how much of our lives are spent washing to avoid being labeled as dirty. 

A photo depicting one of the dancers striking a pose, looking upwards. Photo by Hayim Heron.

The final performance of the night really took on the pressure to conform to white beauty standards. As the performance went on, one of the dancers was literally wrapped in a sheet of paper representing the implicit and explicit pressure black women face to conform to beauty standards. The dancer eventually broke free of them and shredded the paper, a physical representation of the performers’ call for dismantling current beauty standards. While this sounds like a heavy way to end the show, the final performance ended in a celebratory way, alluding to the important role that black joy plays in liberation. 

An image depicting three of the performers during one of the pieces in the show. Photo by Roesing Ape. 

This was an incredible performance that elicited powerful emotions for audience members. If the opportunity to attend an Urban Bush Women company performance or this specific show arises, I highly recommend that you take that opportunity! As a black woman, I believe that this show is a refreshingly non-traditional theatrical experience that invites audience members to examine something as commonplace as hair and think about the ways this is weaponized against marginalized communities. It was incredibly cathartic to laugh and mourn with the performers about our shared experiences with black hair. What I loved about this show is that it was made for black women by black women. Historically these kinds of things are not well received because people who aren’t black women feel uncomfortable. This show certainly knows this and yet unapologetically does not set out to be comfortable for everyone. Instead, the show goes out of its way to center the experiences of black and brown women who are on journeys to love their hair despite being constantly told that black traits are not good enough. 

Editor’s Note: This Brooklyn-based ensemble performed the Bay Area premiere of its full-length dance-theater work that explors race, identity, and concepts of beauty through the lens of Black women’s hair   Hair & Other Stories event detail page can be found on Cal Performances’ website. Zellerbach Playhouse, 2413 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA, 94704

Additional reading materials:

  1. Mission and Core Values — Urban Bush Women 
  2. The Significance of Black Hair – The Garfield Messenger
  3. It’s More Than “Just” Hair: Revitalization of Black Identity | Folklife Magazine  
  4. “Misogynoir”: American Contempt for Black Women and How to Change It | Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity
  5. How Hair Discrimination Affects Black Women at Work
  6. How Natural Black Hair at Work Became a Civil Rights Issue – JSTOR Daily 
  7. The Racial Roots Behind The Term ‘Nappy’ : Code Switch : NPR


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