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