Queens of Sheba follows four black women as they fight their way through everyday occurrences of misogynoir (the combination of racism and sexism in discrimination against black women).
Written by Jessica L Hagan and adapted for the stage by Ryan Calais Cameron, the production is based on a real-life event which saw a group of black women turned away from a nightclub for being ‘too black’. The production weaves the misogynoir of their everyday lives through the recreation of this singular event.
The production explores microaggressions in a way that lays clear the very real aggression they are based on. For example, being told to ‘smile and nod’ within the workplace as a result of black women being stereotyped as aggressive. This was repeated in a mantra throughout the performance, highlighting the way black women have to be passive in order to be seen as anything other than aggressive.
Despite the weight of the topic, the production balanced it out with humour, and the show of solidarity between women was uplifting.
A few mantras were repeated throughout the performance, spoken in unison by all women – perhaps the most powerful being: “he ask me where I’m from. I am a mix of racism and sexism; they lay equally upon my skin.”
The production was dynamic; the four women lively and energetic. The recreation of events demanded a lot of changes of persona as one or more of the women switched to be the oppressors they were confronting. Characters were swapped and exchanged between the women with effortless ease. Often, these personas were exaggerated, which made them all the more effective. The portrayal of men who would approach women in clubs and use awful pick-up lines had the audience in stitches (perhaps suggesting many of them could relate.)
The show was also not afraid to challenge its audience. At numerous points throughout the performance, the actors would make direct eye contact with, point at, or gesture towards audience-members as they verbalised their struggles as black women. In a mainly white audience, this was extremely effective, subverting the usual dynamics of who is allowed to speak, and who is supposed to listen.
Paying tribute to the music of powerful black female artists, the production opens and closes with reference to Aretha Franklin’s Respect. This was used to question who is deserving of respect and why we don’t give black women the same respect we give others.
The singing and dancing gave the performance an almost intimate feel, and it was heartening to see the tight-knit community the four women found with each other expressed through song and dance. The emphasis on solidarity and sisterhood between black women was inspiring, especially when referenced in relation to Diana Ross’ rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, with the women explaining: “Black women are always rising.”
Queens of Sheba is a powerful production with a strong cast and a strong message. Reflecting on the intersection between race and gender, it carried a heavy but necessary truth regarding the continuing discrimination of black women.
The production brings the harsh realities of misogynoir to centre stage; from job-seeking to relationships, microaggressions and intra-community discrimination, Queens of Sheba highlights just how far we still have to go in the struggle against the forces of racism and sexism.
Queens of Sheba runs at HOME until 5th October, as part of Orbit Festival 2019 and Black History Month at HOME, before continuing its UK tour until 29th November.
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