Jessica L. Hagan’s Queens of Sheba addresses misogynoir through a scenario-based fusion of spoken word, physical theatre, dance and music. Its real-life premise justifies its existence and message: in 2015, four black women were turned away west London nightclub DSTRKT for ‘being too dark’. This new touring production by Nouveau Riché and Omnibus Theatre sees Eshe Asante, Tosin Alabi, Kokoma (Koko) Kwaku and Elisha Robin animate the often untold realities of black female existence, both painful and joyous.
The logic of this subsection of non-white drama — to which Queens of Sheba adheres — is simple and compelling. Theatre should not only educate audiences, but should actively affront ignorance, privilege and complicity on and off the stage, a cause enabled by the development of widely-accepted discourses surrounding race and gender. By presenting four young black women in everyday scenarios from the workplace to a first date, Queens of Sheba not only depicts the exhausting reality of workplace discrimination or white men using the n-word, but also looks towards less discussed sources of oppression, including the internalised misogynoir that black men carry.
Hagan highlights this premature sexualisation of black female bodies in some of the most delicate and political passages, giving the play its most thought-provoking quips: ‘I am in love with my abuser…with my oppressor’ says Eshe Asante. By focusing so intimately on the intersection between racism and sexism, Queens of Sheba removes the risk of black experience being simplified to suit non-black comprehension and taste. The result is that authenticity and detail are at the centre of this production. The actors each balance the embattled anguish of repeatedly justifying black identity with the ecstasy of sisterhood and solidarity. Brilliant a cappella singing enforces this unity and eases the transitions between weighty set pieces.
Queens of Sheba is a perfect example of how non-white productions can restructure the theatre space to disrupt white sensibilities — all while stirring genuine elation along the way. Long may it continue.
Main Image Credit: Ali Wright