Stress Test: Queens of Sheba


I don't often go into a performance aware that I am the target audience: black, female, mid-to-late twenties, a London local. The tell-tale sign is that I'm not the only one — there are at least half a dozen similar faces in the Iron Belly auditorium at Underbelly, which, in lovely (but fairly monochromatic) Edinburgh, is saying something. Namely, that 'Queens of Sheba', the result of a collaboration between Untapped by UnderbellyDiorama Theatre and Nouveau Riché, and a self-described exploration of Misogynoir, unsurprisingly attracts a diverse audience.

Misogynoir, a term first coined by black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, describes a form of misogyny directed towards black women, a specific and toxic blend of racism and sexism. The cast of 'Queens of Sheba' (Rachel Clarke, Jacoba Williams, Koko Kwaku and Veronica Beatrice Lewis) take us through a series of deconstructed vignettes that both present and comment on experiences of discrimination that black women in the UK all-too-commonly face, from being labelled as "too aggressive" in the workplace, to being overtly fetishised on dates with white men.

The script, written by Jessica Hagan and adapted by Ryan Calais Cameron, has semblances of the poetic style seen in Ntozake Shange's 'for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf': a focus on rhythm and song, a fluidity of character, an ambiguous setting that is both specific and seemingly universal at once.

Relatability is a prominent strength of the piece. The cast of 'Queens' relate to one another as sisters and confidantes, consciously or unconsciously falling into the trope of the 'magic' number four, as seen in films such as 'Waiting to Exhale' or 'The Best Man' or even 'Soul Food' (if you count Big Mama as an enduring influence — watch the movie, it's worth it). Like the organic sisterhood depicted in 'for colored girls', 'Queens of Sheba' attempts to bring the audience into the fold on a fundamental level through a script peppered with inclusive pronouns — we feel our triumphs, we act on our collective anger, we cry over our disappointments together. But there's also a liberal use of a distinctly accusatory 'you' — to the obnoxiously racist co-worker, the creepily racist boss, the arrogantly racist date, the straight-up racist bouncer. Sitting in the audience, I felt confident that this 'you' didn't apply to me but I began to wonder whether anyone who didn't fit the black-female demographic would feel as if they were sitting on eggshells — Have I done that? Are they talking about me? I don't disagree with direct address in this form, but I do wonder whether it has the potential to make what is intended to be a general critique feel like a personal attack.

And yet, the nature of the play is just that — personal. The intimate setting allows a feeling of complicity to permeate as the performers sing classic Motown anthems in four-part harmonies, and rock out to Tina Turner until the mind is willing but the body is unable. There's even a chorus to the piece, the recurring, provocative statement: "They ask me where I'm from." The response, "I say I am a product of racism and sexism, passed down unknowingly by my next of kin"*, rolls off the tongue easily enough, but as often happens with poignant song lyrics, the more you think about them, the less sense they seem to make. The idea that I am a product of actions perpetuated by others might fit an old-school existentialist reading along the lines of Sartre's 'we're all responsible for war', but today, most would balk from that insinuation. Are all black women inherently products of racist and sexist encounters? If yes, the implication is that there is no hope — our characters are the result of forces outside our control. To my mind, this reading endorses a victim status — absorbing the racist or sexist actions of others as part of your identity, when as my mother would say, It's nothing to do with you — it's those people who have the problem.

That said, the misogynoir phenomenon is certainly real, and compellingly laid bare in the play's principal sketch, based on a real-life incident from 2015, when a group of black women were reportedly refused entry to London's DSTRKT nightclub, because they were 'too dark'. The rage, grief and disbelief conveyed by the characters are amplified by the inference that the offending bouncer at the club is also black. To add further context, the climax of this scene follows a train of thought that muses upon the idea of being "in love with your oppressor". Waiting in line outside the club, the friends sing and dance along to a rendition of Kanye West's 'Gold Digger'. Featuring Jamie Foxx, the lyrics of the chorus are somewhat notorious: "I ain't sayin' she a gold digger / but she ain't messin' with no broke niggas." The song is crude with almost ludicrously sexist overtones — the 'gold digger' is (unsurprisingly) depicted as unfaithful, immoral and solely interested in trapping the narrator into paying decades of child-support. In 'Queens of Sheba', the song is used as an example of tunes that denigrate black women to a beat, a form of misogynoir in which they are oddly complicit.

I'd argue this song is a poor example. Kanye's "Gold Digger" samples heavily from Ray Charles' 1954 classic, "I Got A Woman" (itself a blues standard, recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Johnny Hallyday, you name it). And in case you didn't remember that fact, Kanye uses Jamie Foxx, star of the iconic biopic, "Ray" in which he plays the musician, to open the song with an almost note-for-note rendition of the standard's most famous lyrics: "She gives me money when I'm in need / Yeah, she's a kind of friend indeed / I got a woman way over town / That's good to me" inverted to: "She take my money when I'm in need / Yeah, she's a triflin' friend indeed / Oh, she's a gold digger, way over town / That digs on me." The original Ray Charles tune describes a woman who is faithful to the narrator, almost to a fault. This women gives over her money, time and 'knows her place' is in the home. Compared to this woman, Kanye's "Gold Digger" has flipped the script, instead running circles around his narrator, to get whatever she believes she deserves. Is this empowerment? It's hard to say — but regardless, Kanye's character certainly isn't in control. 

Why does it matter? This definitely isn't an impassioned defense of Kanye West's character (let's pass on that discussion) or his entire discography, but it is to highlight the lack of rigorous, pop-culture analysis that hip hop is afforded as a genre, in comparison to other forms of music. Just as the women of 'Queens of Sheba' draw attention to the fact that hip hop and rap existed for decades before they were deemed "accessible" by the majority, hip hop musicians before and since Kanye West have been creating works that are as intricately designed challenges to the prevailing cultural discourse as anything by Mozart or David Bowie. In fact, the practice of referencing and decoding is particularly pertinent to the hip hop genre, so to fail to acknowledge it is to fail to appreciate it.

On the note of appreciation, I (as you might've guessed) like hip hop. I also, like the cast of 'Queens', often find myself humming along to overtly sexist lyrics, set to a catchy beat. Does Misogynoir count if I'm complicit? After all, there are countless other artists I could listen to, who don't promote the same messages. If I choose to listen to Eminem over Questlove, can I really then blame the former for his offensive content I chose to consume? It's a thorny question that 'Queens of Sheba' brings up but doesn't (and doesn't have to) resolve.

One more note about hip hop. The dreaded N-word. This could form a whole essay in itself, but I'll be brief. 'Queens of Sheba' makes much of calling out a figurative white man, the kind that invites a black woman on a date only to explain his affection for songs like Jay-Z and Kanye West's 2011 collaboration, Niggas in Paris, which use the word. "It's not your word," say the Queens, the implication being... what? It's ours? It's mine? But I didn't ask for it. It seems to be another example of accepting an idea that has been imposed upon me. And in a narrative that highlights some of the many micro-aggressions that are perpetuated against black women, designed to control our behavior for the sake of others, isn't it ironic to simultaneously suggest we should try and control another's speech? The songs that they are allowed to sing? Yes, I think the (often seemingly deep-seated) urge to want to use problematic language is profoundly strange, but to bestow upon myself the power to judge which people can say which expletives seems short-sighted, not taking into account the fact that language acts as an organism, developing over time. The gradual transformation of profanities into slang terms into accepted speech (e.g. bloody) and vice-versa (e.g. "bitch") has a long history, and attempting to thwart that seems a Sisyphus-like endeavor.

All this is not to detract from the script. The fact that 'Queens of Sheba' allows for this level of dissection points to its prowess as a play, in presenting difficult topics in an engaging and provoking way. The oft-repeated "They ask me where I'm from" becomes more than a chorus, it becomes an imperative to think, and to answer the implied question, even if it's not with the answer supplied by the play. For the subsequent discussions alone, this is a play that deserves to be seen more than once. 4/5

* These words are remembered verbatim from the performance, and are accurate to the best of my recollection.