Review: Lyric Opera’s Hip-Hopera The Factotum Is a Cut Above

Barbershops and beauty salons are important cultural hubs for communities of color. “In my day, a barber was more than just somebody who sit around in a FUBU shirt with his drawers hanging all out. A barber was a counselor, a fashion expert, a style coach,” says Cedric the Entertainer’s old school hair cutter character Eddie in 2002’s first Barbershop movie. 

“This is a barbershop! The place where a Black man means something! Cornerstone of the neighborhood! Our own country club!” Eddie adds, Greek chorus-style. This ethos also permeates the world premiere “hip-hopera” The Factotum (a multi-talented person having diverse activities and responsibilities), presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Harris Theater. The Factotum is loosely inspired by The Barber of Seville as well (perhaps with a nod to Porgy and Bess too). 

Factotum ensemble. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Like the film franchise, this script also takes place in an inherited barbershop on Chicago’s South Side. Under the direction of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (who also co-wrote the book and is the dramaturg), brothers Mike (baritone Will Liverman, also a production co-creator) and Garby (baritone Norman Garrett) are at loggerheads on how to best run Master Kutz. 

Co-creator DJ King Rico floats on a fire escape upper stage right, riding the decks to support the orchestrator Marcus Norris, conductor Kedrick Armstrong and their musicians, punctuating the comings and goings of customers on their way to the shop, in the shop, and at a nightclub. The comfortable sets (by Harlan Penn) expand under the English supertitles and Roma Flowers’ spot-on video designs. 

Even before the first dulcet note, audiences get some flavor with Flowers’ well-curated projected photos, featuring South Side notables like aviator Bessie Coleman, journalist Ida B. Wells, Mayor Harold Washington, Senator Carol Moseley Braun, activist Jesse Jackson and a Harold’s Chicken Shack sign. Under those touchstones, the cutters and the customers trade in gossip, advice and armchair sports declarations like “Jordan is the Black Jesus, and LeBron is his disciple.” The ensemble shares gorgeous solo and blended voices, many with an R&B flair. This work illustrates an inextricable connection between modern soul and classic opera, from phrasing to range to emotion. 

Factotum Co-creator DJ King Rico. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The brothers’ niece Cece (Nissi Shalome) is a dancer headed to college while Mike attends to shop business. Garby also runs a gambling business out of the back room. Shop beauticians include Sandra (Symone Harcum), and Chantel (hilarious Melody Betts), who has a young son Neil (super cute Di’aire Wilson) and a hidden crush on Mike. CJ (Martin Luther Clark) returns from the military to his old stomping grounds to fan the flames with his high school sweetheart, Latina singer Rose (Cecilia Violette Lopez). But she’s already dating Garby, who is entirely unsupportive of her and her music career. Of course, there is a barbershop quartet to provide interstitial commentary, and an inevitable police raid of the bookmaking operation. 

This narrative is important. Like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching GodThe Factotum offers a vital look at everyday African American lives, including musings about work, love, personal challenges, and relentless racism, of course. Fred Hampton is quoted, “let me say peace to you, if you’re willing to fight for it.”

Will Liverman as Mike. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Kymberle Gamell’s lobby displays are delightful amuse-bouches before the show, with facts on signs like “one of the first African American millionaires was Alonzo Herndon, who began his empire in 1878 with his first barbershop.” Another explains that “Hush Harbor,” a barber chair setup in situ, is “an art installation celebrating the importance of the sanctuary of the Black Barbershop for Black Men. It is the private space, the ‘hush,’ that allows Black Men to feel safe being themselves. It is the ‘harbor’ where fellowship, growth, and care rush and reside. Boys learn from Men, Men learn from each other, and in the process, an institution serves its community.”  

One of the signs says the artifacts are “dedicated to all the Ancestors who created safe spaces for the Black community in their Shops and Salons.” The energetic production ends abruptly, however. The love triangle remains unresolved, and a few other plot points evaporate as the opera ends. But the commentary about caste in America is insightful. Because some Black Americans “can’t breathe,” these performers sing full-throated representations on their behalf. The Black barbershop remains a sheltering harbor in a white supremacist storm. 

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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