A black woman scrutinises herself in the mirror of the audience’s gaze. She runs her hands down her arms, turns her face. She looks sad, tired. She doesn’t seem to like what she sees – or maybe she has internalised the oppression that tells her she is not allowed to like what she sees in the mirror. Her fellow performers burst onto the stage, singing and dancing. The kind of singing and dancing when you’re completely comfortable, with friends and not afraid to make a fool of yourself. They envelope her in warmth. Gradually they coax her into joining in. ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me’. The opening sequence sums up the dynamic of Nouveau Riché’s Queens of Sheba, which ricochets between anger and hurt, and support and joy.
Jessica Hagan’s script is more like a collection of poems than a standard play. Each chronicles microaggressions and macroaggressions faced by people who occupy the identity of ‘being black and being a woman’, from hostility in the workplace, to dates with white men who say they only date ‘exotic women’. Particular lines glint like the blade of a knife in their turn of phrase and the keenness of their observation. One performer says, ‘They ask me where I’m 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’. Repetition of such lines provides a subtle thread through the piece, providing a musical structure.
Queens of Sheba was inspired by four black women being denied entry to a nightclub for ‘being too black’, an incident that becomes a loose focal point for the piece. Queens of Sheba shows what the experience of misogynoir – the specific prejudice directed towards black women – feels like. Their testimony of oppression and their matter of fact delivery accumulate like a weight on the chest.
The performers, Rachel Clarke, Jacoba Williams, Koko Kwaku, Veronica Beatrice Lewis, are a chorus and a sisterhood. They speak lines perfectly in unison, speaking individual experience, which is also a collective experience. Sometimes one voice is allowed to emerge from the texture, supported by the other voices. Like when they hum and beat box along to the line ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable so he can feel more comfortable’, an observation on dating white men. Another stand out choric piece examines the conflicting feelings of enjoying rap music as a black woman – ‘I am in love with my abuser’, they declare, scrutinising the misogynoir to which people dance and sing along. They are all excellent singers but are not precious about it, not afraid to have fun with it.
In the final image of the piece, the performers hold hands and declare, ‘we are queens and we don’t need you to crown us’. They demand and receive respect.
Queens of Sheba is on at Underbelly until 26th August as part of Edinburgh fringe 2018. More info here.