“What struck most powerfully, though, was the collective soul of their performance”
Four women, dressed in black, stand on a bare stage and for the space of an hour, deliver a passionate diatribe against the twin evils of sexism and racism visited on them daily. They are fierce, they are angry, they are eloquent, and they are young black women.
The experiences discussed here: patronising treatment in white-run offices, dreadful dates with white men who think the women are ‘exotic’, weird assertions of their sexuality and their personalities by black men, were powerfully articulated. They aren’t experiences that I’ve had, but the power and the responsibility of theatre is to make an audience feel things they’ve never previously felt, things that are the experiences of others articulated and embodied by performers. This quartet accomplished that in style. They used wonderfully arranged soul standards, sung a cappella, as leaven in this slightly preachy, torrential statement of their woes. Aretha Franklin songs have only sounded better when sung by Aretha, and their rendition was wonderful.
What struck most powerfully, though, was the collective soul of their performance: lines shared and restated, songs harmonised, movement synchronised, four actors sharing a space and a moment to make a collective statement. They even sighed in harmony. At the end, the audience leapt to their feet in spontaneous standing applause. So many standing ovations are woefully unearned, but this one felt right, like a coming together of actors and an audience that shared their experience. That was quite a moment. Would it have been a better play with less polemic? Very possibly. Would it have spoken so powerfully to the audience if it had been more measured? Almost certainly not.
“the piece resounds with leitmotifs and slogans that, though memorable, threaten to drown out the subtler refrains that form the crux of the subject matter”
The theatre company ‘Nouveau Riche’, which won The Stage Edinburgh Award for its production of “Queens of Sheba”, present quite vital theatre that is stripped back visually but rich in words that quite often dazzle with their pin-sharp focus. Now at the VAULT Festival for a limited run, “Queens of Sheba” tells stories of racism and misogyny from the perspective of four passionate Black Women. The capital letters are intentional – lifted from the programme notes – but are they really necessary? The message is surely powerful enough in its own right, without the need for the upper-case emphasis.
Based on the poetry of Jessica L Hagan and adapted for the stage by Ryan Calais Cameron, the piece resounds with leitmotifs and slogans that, though memorable, threaten to drown out the subtler refrains that form the crux of the subject matter. You need to read beyond the headline grabbing soundbites to realise that there is a more complicated story. Initially it feels like a bit of a tirade replete with sweeping stock phrases, but these are, in fact, quite moving, individual stories.
On a bare stage the four performers; Rachel Clarke, Jacoba Williams, Koko Kwaku and Veronica Beatrice Lewis, speak alone, speak in chorus, sing, rap and harmonise with an “all for one and one for all” attitude. Their tales are told with witty self-deprecation. Stories from the office workplace, a disastrous first date and from the queue outside a London nightclub – the latter based on a real incident when they were refused entry to the club for being “too black”. It brings home the truth that issues of racism are not black and white, but have many shades.
For the majority of the audience, though, it does feel like the ‘Queens of Sheba’ are preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of entertainment value. The close-knit choreography defines the unison of these four girls, complemented by the tight harmonies when they burst into a cappella song; and peppered throughout are some delightful comedy moments that give a refreshing nod and a wink to the polemic. There is a particularly pertinent impersonation of a white man’s stumbling malapropisms on his first date with an “exotic” girlfriend.
In a limited time, much ground is covered, but inevitably much is left out too. Both its strength and its weakness. After an hour a kind of relentlessness sets in, like a slam poet who outstays his welcome. But at the same time, we do still want, and need, to hear more from these extraordinary women. This is an emotionally charged piece of theatre that is undeniably urgent.