Luke Elliott reviews Queens of Sheba at the Soho Theatre and finds Black sisterhood putting out the fires of misogynoir
I took my seat for Queens of Sheba on the balcony of the Soho Theatre to Tems playing on the speakers overhead – a pretty good start. I didn’t know what to expect from this piece as I sat and bopped along to the playlist. I knew it was four black women tackling misogynoir but not much else. When Eshe Asante stepped out to examine herself using the audience as a mirror with striking vulnerability, I knew we were in for something heavy.
Joined by Tosin Alabi, Kokoma Kwaku, and Elisha Robin, a lightness enters the space and we’re left with an image of black sisterhood. This is a recurring theme throughout as we’re taken through varying vignettes of racially charged situations, often delivered with spoken word elements and chorus, to then be transported back to what was in my mind a bedroom, where the women hold each other and buss joke.
“Songs are sung in a capella by the four and often accompanied by stripped-back but high energy choreography”
Originally written by Jessica L. Hagan and adapted by Ryan Calais Cameron, the play balances playing to Black and non-Black audiences well. The non-Black audience who now know a little more thanks to media conversations around hair for example, are able to participate in the jokes. But it doesn’t shy away from talking to the Black audience on an ‘if you know, you know’ kind of vibe.
Unsurprisingly considering the carefully curated playlist, the piece heavily features music. From Tina Turner to Aretha Franklin, songs are sung in a capella by the four and often accompanied by stripped-back but high energy choreography. The songs without choreography however felt a little too long and could have been trimmed somewhat.
Yasmin V Foster was movement director and I’m sure we also have her to thank for the reaction of raucous laughter as the women embody exaggerated male counterparts. While this scene was hilarious, I admit I did feel a little uneasy sat in a mostly white audience who were guffawing at black male characterisations, but in the theatre world that cannot be helped. 9 times out of 10 our audiences will be mostly white.
“As these scenes of hurt and anguish burst into flame, it is they themselves who quell the fire and uplift one another.”
The focus shifts from the misogynoir black women face at the hands of white men, to the misogynoir, and specifically colourism, they face at the hands of black men. Anyone familiar with Black Twitter will have come across these conversations and there are great pieces written off the back of recent events. Rarely have I seen such topics tackled on stage. Here it is direct, raw, and honest.
The four women demand to finally be heard as they pour their pain, their frustration, and their heartbreak out onto the stage and there is nothing we can do but sit in it. The lack of men onstage is not only important for the women to have their voice uninterrupted, but because it also signifies how very often, all black women have is each other. As these scenes of hurt and anguish burst into flame, it is they themselves who quell the fire and uplift one another. There is also a lack of set, though maybe lack isn’t the right word as I did not miss one. I found it allowed us to focus on the Black women in front of us with zero distractions.
Ending with an uplifting prayer for Black daughters everywhere, this play balances trauma and pain with comedy and joy surprisingly well. I thank the director, Jessica Kaliisa, for navigating those choppy waters. Running at 1 hour, this play packs a punch and I suggest getting tickets soon because it’s very popular. Go listen to these Black women speak. Learn, laugh, cry. Support the ting.
Luke Elliott is an actor and writer from Birmingham. His work in theatre includes Edmond De Bergerac for the Birmingham Rep; Into The Unknown for Pentabus Theatre; Empyre at The Albany; Orfeo at the Southbank Centre; Kissing Rebellion at Ovalhouse; Fragments Of A Complicated Mind at Theatre 503; Eve & Cain for Gateway Arts.
Film work includes the BAFTA Scotland award winning My Loneliness Is Killing Me; The Adventures Of Selika; Different For Girls; Ital Reign; and In Front Of You.
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