Lazy mouths don’t pronounce African names but will chant Niggas in Paris with vigour. Perhaps even on a date as one of many ignorant attempts to score points with his “exotic” black, hopeful conquest. I particularly wondered how this unsuspecting audience member at Queens of Sheba’s Warwick Arts Centre run felt as Kokoma Kwaku ran towards him, in an effortlessly comedic way, ready to gouge out his eyes.
There were many moments like that in this pared back play when the audience absorbed the heat of everyday misogynoir (misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender intersect). He was no longer a man who perhaps wished he never sat in the front row of this emotional rollercoaster of a play, he was white Tinder date “Charlie” – who actresses Tosin Alabi, Eshe Ashante and Elisha Robin had to pull their girl away from before she cussed him.
In fact, given the audience last Thursday was predominantly white, I questioned their thoughts as these four women reeled off so poetically and earnestly, what it’s like being a black girl in a white world. Did they believe the depths of misogynoir revealed to them by Jessica L. Hagan’s formidable script, adapted for stage by Ryan Calais Cameron of Nouveau Riché?
Being asked – “Where are you from, from?”, the petting of our hair, birth names being condensed to easier nicknames or, “Show us how to twerk!” (exclaim Becky, Mary and Jane). Workplace microaggressions from being told our assertiveness is aggressive, pestered to smile more, or wait for it, told that fitted dress is too distracting on a Coca-Cola frame.
In one of many powerful scenes, Eshe Ashante (End the silence, My brother Jamal, Humans) painfully scrutinised her figure in an imaginary mirror before demanding “respect” as she swallowed tears. The sisterhood then punctuated Ashante’s unnerving silence with their playful rendition of Aretha Franklin’s power anthem. So many of those ballads offered a soundtrack in which the girls’ infectious on-stage chemistry could bounce off. It was so strong in one scene, laughter broke Ashante out of character while she tried to deliver her new lines. She reeled it back in like a pro, but I’ve no idea how as watchers-on tried to stifle their own giggles in support.
The soundtrack though was deeper than AMDA-trained Robin’s sweet voice because it was created through synchronised exasperated sighs, meditative breaths, kissing teeth and stomps of defiance. There was a symbolic strength and palatable rhythm in their individual, yet collective performances. When combined with such hilarity and purposeful choreography – every scene was a photograph. Credit due to movement director Yassmin V. Foster, and of course, director Jessica Kaliisa.
Queens of Sheba is an ode to black women everywhere and a superb debut stage play. At times so uplifting, you forgot the anguish packed into the dialogue. It was then that silence blanketed the stage like a memorial and the audience was asked to acknowledge our experiences. The complexity of racism and sexism is such that we cannot escape it within our own communities and the British-Ghanian playwright found space to explore these truths too.
The Nouveau Riché and Omnibus Theatre production is now touring London until November 29. Book tickets here.