Queens of Sheba is a tour de force. Four female actors play a multitude of characters that transport us to a world of fun, hope, observation and yearning. Tosin Alabi, Eshe Asante, Kokoma (koko) Kwaku and Elisha Robin thoroughly deserve that extra bow. The play loosely takes its inspiration from an actual incident that occurred outside the DSRKT night club in 2015 and uses this as a platform to articulate the wider micro-aggressions experienced by women of colour.
The opening has a solitary woman standing centre stage and is looking into an imaginary mirror. She wears a coloured African head scarf, blouse and leggings, both black. She gently touches her face as if to confirm she’s ok. Then slowly, she begins to sob. This is a window seldom open to wider society. An image seldom remarked upon. Most of us will agree that we all, to some degree, have body-issues; some obstacle we’re trying to overcome. However, when the issue you’re dealing with is something passed down genetically. One that can-not be changed. All of a sudden, your battle seems insurmountable.
Ryan Calais Cameron’s sharp stage adaptation based on the play written by Jessica L Hagan sees our cast traverse the modern life as experienced by today’s modern black women. Work. Dating. Clubbing. All standard fare, however, when we’re invited to view matters through their eyes. What seems innocent enough in the first instance turns out to have huge ramifications. The actors don’t so much play parts or characters in the traditional sense, instead the scenes are skilfully delivered through syncopated monologues, song and dance. This has the desired effect of hooking us in and exposing us to ‘the message’, without having to worry about character arcs and development.
Halfway through the act the cast provide a chronology of the many ages of the black women growing up: ages 1 to 3 girls are cheeky, fun loving; 6 to 8 they’re problematic; by 9 to 12 they’re sexualised. The fact that resonated with me most was that these individuals were/are forced to grow up too fast and denied the innocence of childhood – and that this neglect of one’s rite of passage is instigated by both parents and teachers.
Acapella numbers are delivered with pathos, sincerity and aplomb with references to female songstresses including, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Eta James and Tina Turner who paved the way for the current generation. Amongst this homage to female trail blazers, the cast address their conflicting emotions regarding the male objectification of women. In particular black male objectification of black women or misogynoir (the specific prejudice directed towards black women where race and gender both influence the bias). With reference to Hip Hop they proclaim in unison: “I’m in love with my abuser, he comes in many forms, I dance to his beat, I’m in love with his sound, he objectifies me – his lyrics tear me down – I’m in love with my abuser”. The audience contemplate the disconnect of being from and of something that dehumanises you while at the same time professing to protect you.
Humour is never far from this rendition and it excels when the all-female cast portray the pastiche of men they’ve encountered in their lives. Charlie is the first. He’s a white cockney wideboy who loves dating ‘exotic’ women. He is a walking bag of micro-aggressions, and never more than one faux pas away from a car crash waiting to happen, as he embarks on his date with one of the cast. This is quickly followed by a comedic display the like of which I’ve never seen executed so well – ever! Each (female) cast member takes a turn to portray a particular stereotype of the young urban black male ‘on the pull’ – it brings the house down. And of course, it resonates because they’ve been on the receiving end of this behaviour every Friday or Saturday night – ad infinitum.
Tonight’s performance calls out stereotypes, biases, and prejudices made every day whether at work or while out socialising – the piece highlights the age-old question asked of them upon meeting someone for the first time (even though you were born & bred or raised in the UK): “Where do you come from? I mean where do you really come from?” They reply: “I’m a mix of racism and sexism, they lay equally on my skin. Passed down unknowingly by my next of kin … ignoring the fact I’m God’s creation”.
Queens of Sheba is the beauty that comes when the authentic voice of the marginalised is given room to breathe – inhale the sisterhood. I for one can’t wait for their next offering.★ ★ ★ ★