Queens of Sheba Review: The play that will empower all black women

They ask me where I am from! I say I am a mix. Of both racism and sexism – they lay equally on my skin. Passed down unknowingly by my next of kin.”

Above is an excerpt from the play- A line that was repeated throughout to emphasise:

Misogynoir [mi-soj-uh-nwar], noun. 1.  the specific prejudice directed towards black women where race and gender both influence the bias.

Queens of Sheba is the best play I’ve seen  this year! I felt so touched by the story that I shed a few tears at the end. They truly captured the essence of how it feels to be a black woman in a society that treats us unfairly before getting to know and understand who we are as individuals. We are too often faced with micro and macro aggressions  from the media and wider society. “You have to be a strong woman!” “Why don’t you smile?” “Black women have too much attitude and are aggressive!” These are just some of the statements that get pushed on to black women, trapping them in a false sense of being while they struggle to break free and own who they are with confidence. To be quite frank, I think we are misunderstood. 

Queens of Sheba delves into the misogynoir, fetishisation of black women by white men, european beauty standards, misogyny from within black communities and  the conflicting feelings of enjoying rap music as a black woman. The play gives sheds light on the,‘invisible’ battles being fought while allowing the audience to reflect on their own journey and complicity in the mistreatment of black women. 

Queens of Sheba departs from the traditional methods of Western storytelling and uses elements of spoken word, physical theatre, dance and music from the African diaspora. The play confronts the status quo, tackles the truth and speaks it. Stripped back, the words take centre stage. The play also highlights the incident which occurred at the DSTRKT Nightclub in 2015 when four women were turned away for ‘being too dark’(www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/01/dstrkt-nightclub-denies-ban-dark-overweight-women-west-end-london). 

Queens of Sheba, presented by Nouveau Riché won the Edinburgh Fringe Stage Award last year and was written by Jessica L. Hagan.  It was directed by Jessica Kaliisa and on the night Tosin Alabi, Eshe Esante, Kokoma Kwaku and Elisha Robin were our four magical storytellers. The play opened up with a powerful silent solo of movement from one of the cast members (Eshe) while analysing the beauty of her skin. This solo also portrayed the internal conflict and rejection black women experience because of european beauty standards which constantly invade our everyday lives. This moment allowed her to truly convey her pain and connect with the audience. The stage was then brought to life with the arrival of the other three other cast members who began to give her words of encouragement. They then broke out into song,’RESPECT’ by Aretha Franklin.What an anthem!

 

The cast was tight and their vocals were amazing. They paid homage to many amazing black female singers throughout history including; Diana Ross and the Supremes, Billie Holiday, Gladys Night, Etta James and Tina Turner (they even sang Rolling on a river (Proud Mary) at one point. 

The cast used dramatic devices such as, ‘calling out in unison’ perfectly and so strategically throughout the play that the audience were hanging on to every word and captivated at every moment. The play had many humorous points and explored the issue of, ‘workplace politics’ black women face in the workplace , ‘Can I touch your hair? Is it your hair?’ To the 14th day- ‘managing microaggressions’ to the 30th day- cultural appropriation, ‘Wah Gwan’  accompanied with a ‘twist of the neck’. By the 4th month it was decided, it was time to leave, cue Tina, ‘left a good job in the city, workin’ for the man ev’ry night and day’. The audience was ablaze with laughter. 

The play then drived into the topic of interracial relationships. Each actress took a turn to play the role of, ‘Charlie’ a white man who, ‘only dates black women’. Each actress also took a turn to embody and act out how a black woman would feel on a date with a man who subscribes to the stereotypes portrayed about black women while fetishising her entire existence. Although the characterisation of Charlie was slightly exaggerated, he definitely said some things I have heard over the years which triggered me. At one point, Charlie described black women as ‘Exotic, Sexual and Wild’ and expressed, ‘Niggas in Paris’ was this favourite song. This then led to him using the word freely while holding the opinion- it has become an acceptable term that anyone from any culture can use. The scene built up to a crescendo where one of the actresses tried to go for someone in the audience (it was a part of the performance don’t worry!). I also want to add the majority of the front row consisted of white people, this really made the scene powerful as it created a strong sense of her fighting against her, ‘oppressor’. The audience was also surprised and appreciative of this bold and courageous move. I was on the edge of my seat at this moment as I started to think, ‘I wonder how they feel? which suddenly turned into thoughts such as, ‘Do they understand the message this play is turning to convey? Do they understand how attacked we feel on a daily basis in different spaces?’. ‘Do they now understand what imposter syndrome is?’.

We were then transported to a club scene which was a re-enactment of the incident which occurred outside DSTRKT nightclub. The women began to explore the issue of colourism and racism while beatboxing. The relationship between hip hop and Black women was explored with lines such as, ‘ if I’m a lover of hip hop does that mean I’m in love with my opposer?’. Hip hop and rap music has been known to degrade and objectify black women throughout the years via lyrics and music videos, yet we continue to listen and celebrate the culture of certain artists who are guilty. I’ll be honest, I found this hard to digest as I was woken up to the reality- that some music I listen to is polluted with negativity and sexism and I could not escape it. During this time, the cast took various turns acting out how men approach women while in the club. This was gold! The cast were humorous as they utilised the whole stage to bop, drag and ‘gully creep’ to the cast member who was acting as the female they wished to approach. They used classic lines such as, ‘You’re a dead ting’ when they got rejected. Although funny, I was taken back to the numerous times I’ve been approached by a guy only to turn him down and for him to start yelling abuse. I started to wonder, ‘why do men feel so entitled sometimes?’, ‘why do they think this behaviour is okay?’.
Also, yelling abuse isn’t going to change the fact your ego got bruised (just saying).

Although the play took us on a journey full of laughter, it also addressed some serious matters and ended with the cast members coming together and showing solidarity. As Black women, we have been told we are the nurturers and we are the ones that must always stand strong. However, the cast reminded us, ‘there’s a limit to your love’ and ‘there’s a power to your pain.’ They also referred to childhood experiences some Black people face in terms of being labelled a ‘statistic’, ‘aggressive’, ‘disruptive’ as well as being ‘sexualised’ from a young age. As they spoke about slavery they reminded the audience, ‘we inhaled hate and exhaled magic’. The play ended with the line, ‘we are queens and we don’t need you to crown us’ in union and I must say it was so empowering and liberating. Chelingo’s song, ‘Black girl magic’ filled the space as the cast took their well deserved bow. 

After the show I managed to ask Eshe Esante and Elisha Robin for a few words. 

The piece is quite powerful and emotive for the audience but what is it like for you while you’re performing ? 

EE: It’s very cathartic. It brings you closer to every black woman. It bridges the gap with black men and it would be great if more of them would come and see plays like this. It feels like freedom. It’s the only place I get to be listened to. 

ER: Performing this piece feels overwhelming but like a privilege. The way it resonates it’s bigger than us. It’s so powerful and I’m very blessed to be apart of such a potent message. You have to be confident while you’re performing and sure with what you’re presenting. Using the audience, especially white people for reference allows you to embody and convey raw emotion making the piece feel even more authentic.

We are inviting you into our space. This is a space we rarely get. Here we are in all of our glory and magic. Without having to conform in our full form. Unapologetic. 

Tonight was the most powerful. We’ve been to Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Warwick and now London. London has been the most receptive. It’s helpful when the audience is more responsive. Just be in all of your glory.

I think the play allowed every single black woman in the audience to feel that little more visible, a little more represented but most importantly a little more valued. 

 

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