Image by Illustrator Divyakshi Kedia
A beauty supply store, or at least the front and middle sections of one. Mannequin heads line the walls, their eyes directed down towards the aisles. They are almost all dark skinned, displaying a variety of different types of hair-purple wigs, long straight brown haired wigs, precise and controlled curly wigs, etc. The long aisles have what seems like countless amounts of product, the majority for African American hair or beauty care, from moisturizers, hair dyes, African black soap, shea butter. There are posters of both African American and white models hanging up. Although there may be more of one than the other. Maybe. As needed throughout the scene, the set shifts and moves.
The middle part of the store is darkened, so the front downstage is more in focus. The SHOP OWNER- an Asian woman, dedicated to her work, protective of her wares- is at the counter. The door bell jingles, and GIRL (12), comes in. She’s African American, her hair not done, ready for another perm. Her coat covers her outfit, and her backpack’s a little too heavy-
she’s come here straight from school. The Shop Owner is immediately alert.
Girl makes to go further into the store, but Shop Owner makes a noise, stopping her.
You know. Your bag, you need to leave it there, your bag.
Girl’s energy deflates just a bit, although she expected this. She puts her bag by the door, making sure the Shop Owner can see. She grabs a basket and goes into one of the aisles. She already knows what she’s looking for. Shop Owner watches, maybe moving a few steps away from the counter, keeping her in sight. By now, RENEE (22) has entered, holding a mannequin head of her own and some products in her arms. She has big, natural hair, done in a way that tells her inexpereince with styling it. It looks good, though. She watches. Neither Girl nor Shop Owner notices her.
She usually follows us around the store. She’ll walk behind us, or stand right at the end of the aisle, watching. Maybe she’s feeling nice today. Or maybe since I was alone, that day. Didn’t bring my friends. Less hands for her to watch.
Renee finds a spot to sit and settles down, placing the mannequin head on the floor in front of her, along with the product. Girl comes back, her basket full, and sets it down on the counter. She goes to her bag, Renee unseen, and grabs some cash, goes to pay. Shop Owner counts the money. Gives her change and the plastic bag full of supplies.Watches as she grabs her bag from the front. Girl is excited once more, and goes into a darkened aisle. The front, where the counter and the Shop Owner are, darkens, and for a moment, all we see is Renee. She smiles.
Here’s How to Burn Your Culture Out from Your Roots.
Lights up on the middle of one of the aisles. The set has shifted. MOTHER sits in a dining table chair, holding a remote up, fiddling with the TV.
That’s what I was doing, at least. We’d usually watch-
Something cuts on and Mother smiles.
The sound of Dick Van Dyke performing his first scene in Mary Poppins plays. Renee grins.
Girl runs in, carrying her plastic bag. She’s taken off her coat and bag, and is dressed in her pajamas. She looks offstage at the TV and giggles.
(in a bad British accent, imitating Dick Van Dyke)
Mother gets up and moves behind the chair.
Come on, sit down, let’s get started.
Girl is distracted, looking at the TV.
Focus now. I’m tired, do you want to do this or not? Cause I can go to sleep-
No no no-
She sits, giving her the bag. Mother takes it, taking everything out. She passes back the Vaseline and comb to Girl. She gets ready. Once she is, she holds her hand out. Girl passes back the Vaseline. She opens it and begins as Renee speaks. As she’s talking during the following, Renee tries to do the mannequin’s hair in different natural hair styles- cornrows, bantu knots, twists, braids. She’s not good at any of it. She keeps trying.
First. You place Vaseline around the forehead. So the lye, the chemicals, so it won’t burn you. Keep a dollop on the back of your wrist in case you need it.
Stop, let me get it now. Do you need it anywhere else?
Alright, then. Give me the comb.
Girl does. Mother begins parting the hair.
Part the hair. You use a rattail comb- you know, the one that’s thin with the pointy end. You part with the pointy end. Four sections. Start-
(with the movie)
Though we adore men INDIVIDUALLYYYY-
Renee smiles. Sings along, quieter.
We agree that as a group
They’re rather stuuuupid.
Mother pops Girl on the back of the head with the comb.
Start in the back, first. The hair’s the thickest, there.
Mother opens the jar of relaxer. She continues as Renee speaks.
You put the comb, the top part in the lye- the relaxer, it’s like a creme. The perm. It
It smells. It’s hard to explain, almost. But you can tell. You know cartoons, when one of
the characters falls into a pit of bubbling green acid and chemicals? It happens to the
Joker, in Batman, it happens to him. Makes him go crazy, makes him the Joker. Those
deadly looking green pits of. Something. It reminds me of that. The smell, it makes me
think of that. Like you’ll stick you hand in, and when it comes back out all that’ll be left
are your bones, your skin would have melted off.
You get used to it, though. But it. Smells. Hot. And. Angry.
Anyway. You start in the back, and you stick the comb in the relaxer, the lye, and you
apply to the hair
Tell me if it burns.
It’ll burn. You start at the root, as close to the scalp as possible, try not to touch the skin,
but probably, it will still burn. Even if you don’t touch the skin, you feel the heat from the
chemicals. Start at the root, comb to the end, use your other hand, gloved, and you twist it
around. Do it with the rest of your hair.
Mother continues. Renee watches. Tries to do the mannequin’s hair. Girl tries to keep still, grimacing a little, not saying anything about the pain. She sings.
Just a spoonful of sugar
Helps the medicine go down…
In the most delightful way….
You don’t say anything, though. Because if it burns, it’s working. That’s what you think.
If it burns, it’s working, it’s burning the curls out, it’s like a flat iron, see, that’s hot, that
heats up and presses down and straightens your hair, so this must be the same, right, it makes sense, and even if it doesn’t-
Everyone knows it’s supposed to burn.
Is it hurting? Why didn’t you say something? Where? Where?
Girl points. Mother applies Vaseline. Continues.
I’m twenty two now. I haven’t gotten a perm in years.
She looks at her mannequin head. She hasn’t done any of it right, not all the way.
Not in years.
Mother’s done. She pats the hair with her gloved hand for a bit, then puts a shower cap over it. Picks up her phone, sets a timer.
Let me know if it starts burning.
Look at me.
You let me know, alright? Don’t try and hide it.
Not hiding it-
Ok, I will.
She exits. Renee looks at Girl, watching TV.
You go to a nice school, one with a SmartBoard or Chrome-books, one with a big
playground, with gooey warm cookies at lunch. And you’ve started noticing boys, now,
and you’ve started hoping they notice you. And most of your friends are blond or brunette, with long straight hair, hair that looks pretty with headbands and flowers and hair-clips in it, hair like Hannah Montana, KimPossible, Hillary Duff, Cinderella, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears, Wonder Woman, hair that’s not like yours, not like Mommy’s, and even Raven Symone, her hair’s straight, Keke Palmer, so is her’s, and Granddad asks you don’t you want hair that boys can run their hands through? And you do, you do, but first they have to look at you, they’ve gotta notice you, and they won’t, not with your fro or puff. And everyone’s got straight hair, even the other girls like you, it’s not all the way the same but their hair can pull up into a cute ponytail that bounces and sways. And. Well. You just want to be someone worth looking at.
Girl’s arm raises, unconsciously, to her head, but she stops it in time.
It burns. You feel-
The timer goes off. Mother comes in and takes the shower cap off. They walk downstage, where the counter had been. There is now a kitchen sink, with a chair propped in front of it. Mother and Girl move towards it, Girl sitting in the chair and leaning her head back.
Use neutralizing shampoo, first. Get the chemicals out.
Regular shampoo and conditioner, then.
Mother does. Renee watches.
Rinse it out, wash it out, rinse it out.
Rinse the lye out.
Rinse your heritage out.
Rinse your inheritance out, let it get pulled and sucked down into the drain.
It’s not like that for everyone. A perm. It doesn’t mean that for everyone.
Sometimes hair can really just be hair. I think about getting a perm again, now that I’m
older, now that most time I can look at myself and not have to compare. But for me. For
her. Back then, for a while. I wanted to be anything but. Me. Like the other girls, the
women on TV.
She looks at the Girl, intent.
You just. You don’t know. You don’t know about Angela Davis, about India.Arie, about Lauryn Hill, about Erykah Badu, about your mother’s hair, the history in her curls, you don’t know that Black is Beautiful, there is no trend, no hashtag to let you know that, and if there was you wouldn’t believe it because you never see it, it’s not popular or cool or brave to be natural, it’s just stupid, it’s weird, it’s annoying, it’s embarrassing, the only one ever telling you that you’re beautiful the way you are is your mom and she has to say that, she has to, so it doesn’t mean anything. So. Rinse the shampoo out.
Mother’s done. She pulls Girl’s head back up out the sink, wraps it in a towel. They go back into the now darkened aisle. Renee is left alone onstage. She looks at the tangled and messed up hair of her mannequin.
Some things you learn too late. And you spend years playing catch up.
Niara Mae is a playwright, actress and director from the Washington, D.C. area. Most recently, she’s written for Here We Go’s 24 Hour Play Festival, and an upcoming episode on The Language of Us podcast. She’s currently working on her thesis play for her final year at The New School for Drama.