REVIEW: Queens of Sheba (Underbelly Cowgate) ★★★★

Following huge success at Edinburgh Fringe, Queens of Sheba returns to London at the New Diorama Theatre for the start of September. It is an entertaining, powerful and ambitious exploration of black women’s experiences of racism and sexism.

Threading through the centre of the performance is the story of four women going on a night out: applying makeup, laughing and dancing. The performance gathers momentum as the night progresses up until the pivotal moment where they are turned away from a nightclub. Refused for being ‘too black’, the actresses mirror the footsteps of real black women at the incident at Dstrkt night spot in 2015.

Yet Queens of Sheba feels far more than four women’s stories, it evokes the far more complex narrative of black women’s collective experiences of misogynoir (prejudice against black women). The production also goes far beyond the limits of one genre; it is played out through storytelling, song, spoken word, comedic sketches and speeches. A fusion of a lesson, a story and a concert.

Bechdel Theatre recommends you see the show whether you know everything about ‘what it means to be both female and black’ or whether you know very little about it. I fall into latter category as a white woman. Writing from this perspective, I both enjoyed the show and came away feeling I understood black women’s experiences far more.

The actresses’ consistently faultless vocals add to the strength of the performance: a literal representation of the power of making your voice heard. Meanwhile, the pinpoint perfect timing of the chorus and refrains brought the group together in a reminder of the strength of solidarity. The refrains also served to hammer home key messages, which could otherwise be lost. With a fast moving and dynamic mix of genres and a poignant, complex script, the play could benefit from allowing the audience slightly more time and space to take in the ideas and experiences presented.

Combining emotive vocals with the depth of the script and acting creates a piece which is strikingly powerful and unapologetic. The characters did not adjust or reduce their voices to make room for white or male audience members. Undoubtedly, this is right – right, but not common.

Righteously unapologetic and angry against white patriarchy, there would be the potential for white or male audience members to feel under attack. Yet as a white woman, I didn’t feel attacked or positioned as the opposition. I’m not saying that I didn’t become more aware of my actions and internalised racism – I did – but I also felt an understanding and connection with the women rather than the distance of opposition.

I highly recommend Queens of Sheba; it will bring you a sense of awareness and solidarity. You will leave with an overwhelming impression of humanity, pride and strength that will stay with you long beyond the theatre walls.

Reviewed by Jennifer McGowan

Queens of Sheba plays at the New Diorama 4 – 8 Sep 2018


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