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IMPRESSIONS: Jessica L. Hagan's "Queens of Sheba" at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival at Chelsea Factory

IMPRESSIONS: Jessica L. Hagan's "Queens of Sheba" at  The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival at Chelsea Factory
Miranda Stuck

By Miranda Stuck
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Published on February 22, 2023
"Queens of Sheba"; photo by Ali Wright

Cast: Oluwatosin (Tosin) Alabi, Eshe Asante, Kokoma (Koko) Kwaku-Pownall, Elisha Wilks-Williams
Writer: Jessica L. Hagan 
Adapted by: Ryan Calais Cameron 
Playwright: Jessica Kaliisa
Assistant Director & Stage Manager: Naomi Denny 
Movement Director: Yassmin V. Foster
Vocal Coach: Theo Llewellyn 
Producer for Nouveau Riche: Sarah Jordan Verghese
Producer for Soho Theatre: Maddie Wilson
Producer and Creative Director for Soho Theatre: David Luff 
Presented in Association with Chelsea Factory

The Chelsea Factory

Thursday, January 12 – Sunday, January 22 2023

When hilarious storytelling meets raw, painful honesty, in comes an unforgettable performance of the Queens of Sheba, a play with movement and song, featuring four passionate women: Tosin Alabi, Eshe Asante, Koko Kwaku-Pownall, and Elisha Wilks-Williams. These performers take the Chelsea Factory stage by force to present, debate, and speak about themes of misogyny, womanhood, racism, and identity.

The first play by Ghanaian-British writer, Jessica L. HaganQueens of Sheba is based on a real-life incident, which occured in 2015, when four Black women were turned away from a nightclub for being "too Black."  Program notes state, “Queens of Sheba is a hymn to resilience, a song of resistance and a celebration of Blackness and femininity.”

Captivating and humorous, the Queens act out  multiple scenarios. Roaring laughter from the audience provides the backdrop for the provocative explorations, as the company posits multiple questions rooted in memories of past experiences: “Why does a Black woman’s reality force her to grow up so quickly? How does a Black woman make herself more 'palatable' in the workforce? Will there be a time when Black women don’t risk fetishization? When will you stop asking to touch my hair? Why can’t you pronounce my name?"

And...  "Am I overthinking everything?”

Four Black women dressed in black costumes - over the shoulder, sleeveless, to the chin. Center woman both arms upraised with bent elbows facing the audience, woman on left right arm extended on diagonal, woman on right with head turned over left shoulder, fourth woman head tucked
Queens of Sheba; photo by Ali Wright

One memorable story  of a first date as a Black woman with a white man features “Charlie.”  Each actor enacts the dating experience as "Charlie" mispronounces his date's name, asks to touch her hair, and orders her a drink without knowing if she wants one.  Charlie essentially does everything wrong to each of these women: his misinformed actions, the definition of white toxic masculinity. 

Between celebrating songs such as Tina Turner’s Proud Mary and Aretha Franklin’s Respect, through playful harmonization and energetically improvised dance moves, Asante becomes quiet, her eyes swelling with tears. “I’m tired,” says Asante, “I’m so tired.” 

There is no way to tackle ongoing issues of sexism and racism without acknowledging and expressing the frustration, anger, and sadness. Moments of sexism in public, such as being hollered at on the street, or on a night out , feel regrettably relatable to all women.  Suddenly, no one is laughing; instead, we wish this did not ring true in 2023. 

Four Black women - one woman elbows tucked to sides forward of the others who look on with with hands in front of their faces.
Queens of Sheba; photo by Ali Wright

Queens of Sheba masters the art of tackling exigent issues with a perfect balance of genuine tears and shared humor. The epitome of resilience, these four Queens, demonstrate the ways Black women rise and rebel against the constant societal pressure to  quietly conform. During the performance, every woman in the room is reminded of her ownership of self, of respect, and of love. “Your respect shouldn’t have policy,” say the Queens, “Respect is respect, woman is woman, human is human.” 

Four Black women costumed in black face the audience with mouths open as if singing or speaking
Queens of Sheba; photo by Ali Wright


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