A Tangled History

When Kimberly Morgan was a sophomore in college, she cut off all her hair. Chopped it to within a half-inch of her skull. Watched it fall to the floor like a cast-off burden. She is what’s known in the African American community as “tenderheaded”—sensitive to the special chemicals and heated combs used to tame the tight curls of black hair into something straighter. To get that look, she’d endured headaches that lasted for days, suffered sores the size and shape of her pinkie finger. This haircut would be the end of all that. She went back into the world transformed, feeling healthy and light. And that’s when her real troubles began.

As Morgan tells it in her award-winning one-woman show, Hot Comb: Brandin’ One Mark of Oppression, which she’s remounting at Pillsbury House Theatre this month, the rituals of black hairstyling are as politically, culturally, and emotionally loaded as any other racial issue. Mythologized and misunderstood. Divisive even among African Americans. Morgan discovered just how much is wrapped up in hair on the day she chopped hers off. Stepping back onto campus at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, freshly shorn, she was labeled a lesbian, a militant, and ugly. Guys who had wanted to date her the day before were now uninterested. On the flip side, African American men and women who fancied themselves protectors of racial pride—and who had scorned her former ’do (a perm) as an affront to natural black beauty—were now praising her for supposedly rediscovering her African roots. But all she’d intended to do was save her scalp.

The incident led Morgan to create Hot Comb while she was still in college. The show, which looks at the lives of a dozen female characters through the prism (or prison) of their hairstyles, is named after the iconic hair-straightening implement used for decades in African American homes and beauty salons. The device resembles a curling iron with a metal comb fastened to the end, as if a classic “unbreakable” dime-store comb had been bronzed and affixed to a super-heated wand. A girl’s first hair-straightening with a hot comb was once a rite of passage, and Morgan’s play evokes this common bond, churning up more than a century’s worth of recollections that range from infuriating to fond, funny to philosophical. Anyone—of any race—who’s ever sat at her mother’s feet for a combing or put herself through pain for vanity’s sake will understand.

After college, Morgan put her theatrical ambitions on the back burner while she worked as a consultant with the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Atlanta. But within a few years she was acting again, this time in Seattle, where she moved with her husband, Marcus. The couple settled in the Twin Cities a little more than two years ago, and Morgan first performed locally in Diva Daughters DuPree at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul. “I told her I was going to discover her,” jokes Penumbra founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy, who has since cast her in the theater’s upcoming summer show I Just Stopped By to See the Man. “Your eye goes to her. And that’s stage presence, star quality—hell, I don’t know what you want to call it—something that some people have that just makes you interested in what they’re doing.”

Last year, Morgan staged Hot Comb at Pillsbury House and was awarded the highest honor in the Twin Cities theater community—an Ivey Award—for her performance. Bellamy calls Morgan’s playwriting “fearless” and “honest” in its characterization of black culture, and says the 29-year-old actress is emotionally open enough on stage to reveal the tremendous depths of a show like Hot Comb. “Audiences want to see actors think, want to see them wrestle with dilemmas. That ability to see, to open up and expose that process, is a gift. And this girl has it.” Morgan says she’s simply sympathetic, relating to her characters as though they were real. “I connect in a deep way—I don’t distance myself,” she says. “I try not to think so much about me.” Offstage, she’s equally sensitive. She cries at plays. At news stories. Commercials, too. “My husband,” she confesses, “always says I’m going to dehydrate.”

Hot Comb showcases Morgan’s ability to immerse herself in multiple perspectives. And the play may be even more insightful this year. Morgan received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to research black hair, in order to add more realism and background to her characters. She interviewed 35 people about their hairstyling experiences and spent a week studying slave narratives and other texts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a renowned repository of African American historical documents in New York City. She discovered that in pre-colonial Africa, hairstyle denoted everything from class to age to marital status to what family people came from. Hair was communication. And then it was silenced: in America, slaves’ heads were shaved to keep tribes from identifying each other. This submission to shaving, Morgan believes, was the beginning of “a long history of self-loathing in the African American slave population.”

To immerse myself in the subject matter of Hot Comb, I arrange to meet Morgan at Vasuda Salon in south Minneapolis, which is run by Emmett Henley, a stylist Morgan has interviewed previously. Henley specializes in what the barbering trade calls “ethnic” hair: the kinky, coarser locks generally found among African Americans and other non-Caucasians. Self magazine, in fact, named him “the best stylist for curly and highly textured hair” in 1998. He’s had a lot of practice—he began cutting hair at age 11 in his grandmother’s beauty parlor in Chicago.

We arrive at Vasuda on a busy Friday afternoon. There’s R & B cranked up on the sound system, a lot of ooh babys floating around the room. A female assistant wearing a shirt that says “Fabulous” jokes with the customers. One woman is getting her hair relaxed—that is, prepped with chemicals that loosen tight curls, allowing for straighter styles. Though Henley uses safe, organic hair treatments whenever possible, the basis for most relaxers is what it has always been: lye. “Like Drano”—if much less potent—he says.

Straight hair, and the lengths to which some African American women will go to get it, may be mostly about fashion nowadays. But its roots are firmly in the “good hair” versus “bad hair” dichotomy, a distinction used to describe the various hair textures that emerged from slave-era miscegenation. African Americans born with straighter, more Caucasian-looking hair were long said, by blacks and whites alike, to have good hair, while those with tightly curled (“nappy”) locks were deemed to have bad hair. If your hair wasn’t straight, you were, at best, improperly groomed; at worst, you were making a sociopolitical statement. The hot comb was like a hammer for pounding in nails that otherwise refused to go down; it wasn’t subtle, but it gave hope to anyone with “bad hair.”

Invented in the 1880s, hot combs were initially marketed to white women. But Madame C. J. Walker, who had become the country’s first black female tycoon by selling African American hair care kits, quickly customized the comb for use with her own products. Within a few decades, the device was synonymous with black hairstyles. That’s no longer the case. Chemical relaxers have largely sent the hot comb the way of the corset. At Vasuda Salon, you’d sooner hear polka music than spot a hot comb, though Henley says he does get the occasional customer who expects him to use the old metal standby. Still, Morgan and Henley agree, most African American girls today are familiar enough with hot combs to have some impression of them, whether positive or negative, fascinated or fearful.

Morgan, who grew up in Connecticut and North Carolina, has early memories of wanting her hair to resemble that of her white friends. And actually, all her friends were white. Morgan attended private school—her father was one of the FBI’s first black agents—and she dreamed of the day she would finally be old enough to undergo the hot-comb ritual. At age 9, she was ready. Every week or two, she underwent the two-hour ordeal: wash, blow-dry, hot combing. Then came the comb burns—on the neck, the ears, and the scalp.

In crafting Hot Comb, Morgan was careful not to take sides with respect to the politics of black hair. The show’s 12 characters, all African American females, range in age and social status. A corporate climber must decide whether to straighten her hair in order to gain approval in business circles. A girl blessed with tresses straight and true is eventually objectified for her beauty; she reappears later in the show as a drug-addicted prostitute. African American hair, Morgan shows, is hardly a black-and-white issue. Never was. Never could be, given slavery’s legacy. As Henley puts it, black hair is simultaneously “an area of pride and also of shame.”

Morgan herself admits that, until she undertook her artistic investigation, she was “just as guilty as the next person of stereotyping a black woman by the way she wears her hair.” Long, straight hair? A beauty who’s got a leg up, so to speak, on her sisters—and may be smug about it. Weave? Insecure. Gold digger. Man hunter. Writing Hot Comb, Morgan says, helped her focus on inner beauty—especially after her own hairy run-in with stereotypes.

Morgan hasn’t cut her hair since that day she chopped it all off in college. She trained her new growth into dreadlocks and now, eight years later, they run in funky ropes down to her waist. She still gets pegged wrong: at Henley’s salon, a man assumes she’s a Rastafarian. She’s not, but she understands. People need to make sense of the world. And it’s impossible to get it all straight.

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