Right off the bat, it is clear why Queens of Sheba is a multiple award-winning play. Jessica L Hagan has created a tightly written piece, naturalistically performed by Tosin Alabi, Eshe Asante, Kokoma Kwaku and Elisha Robin. Directed by Jessica Kaliisa, this talented quartet of Queens, present a realistic yet poetic dialogue about the experiences of Black British women today. Using a variety of genres; verse, song, rap and poetry, the Queens take us on a factually- based, fraught and funny journey of black female Britons lives, underpinned by the racism and sexism endemic in Britain.
Just as Shakespeare wrote the dialogue of his kings and queens in verse, the best of Hagan’s sharp script is in verse and rhyme for the Queens of Sheba. I love how the cast altered the mood and genre so effortlessly, treating us to snippets of song, spoken word poetry, rap and gospel-like call and response, which are realistic and lyrical, heartrending and uplifting at the same time. The quartet individually and severally present sketches. Sometimes they are like a Greek Chorus. At other times they transform into white men or women in the office, or black men at the club, in different scenarios where black women are forced to face the racism and sexism imposed upon them. Now if this sounds, well, depressing, it isn’t, there is a lot of humour. The audience, including me, laugh long and hard in recognition, hurt, anger and scorn. The way humour is used sometimes reminds me of when a group of friends are chatting about incidents, and you laugh to release the painful memories they trigger. The humour acts as a pressure valve to relieve the trauma of racism and sexism. But it is also because some of the behaviours of the male and white characters, depicted by the cast, although cutting, are hilarious, ludicrous or silly, which mean you can’t help but laugh out loud.
As you can tell, the different accounts of racism and sexism in Queens of Sheba really resonated with me and much of the audience. I would love to see it again, because the multi-layered script is so cleverly written and acted, it packs such intelligent social commentary, information and entertainment into just one hour. From code switching to clothes switching and the trials of interracial dating, the Queens of Sheba take no prisoners.
For the Queens of Sheba hip hop is more than a guilty pleasure, they love hip-hop music, but it is also a weapon of oppression. They fearlessly address the fact that a lot of popular hip-hop melodies and beats can lift you up, but their lyrics also tear black women down.
The play is well flavoured with references to pop songs by black artists. Each member of the cast, use their wonderful voices to sing a cappella solos and group harmonies, with excerpts of songs by black artists to emphasize certain issues. Pithy but painfully true is the repetition by the quartet of Queens: “Your sexism hurts more than their racism.”
I feel fortunate that the cast are more than equal to Hagan’s clever and lyrical script. Queens of Sheba is educational, polemical, and perhaps most importantly, extremely entertaining. If it did not entertain, the messages wouldn’t hit home.
Queens of Sheba is at Soho Theatre from 16 to 21 August 2021, for more information click here