It’s a rare thing for black experience to take centre stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the Queens of Sheba are ready for the spotlight.
The play, by theatre company Nouveau Riché, offers a whirlwind tour of black women’s lives in modern day Britain, dealing with everything from the sexual politics of interracial dating to the complexity of what it means to love hip hop as a black woman when the lyrics so often demean you. Through the Queens’ eyes, the audience sees the highs and lows of being black and female. During rousing musical numbers, there is real joy as the Queens lift each other up in sisterhood. There is also raw pain and frustration at being exposed, again again, to misogynoir – the double whammy of racism and sexism to which black women are subjected.
Queens of Sheba is an overtly political story, but it’s also a compelling one. Ryan Calais Cameron, who co-founded Nouveau Riché and adapted the material for stage, is certain that Queens of Sheba has something to offer everyone. “No matter what race you are, what creed or colour, you understand that there’s a passion in it and a beautiful story being told, so you want to be part of this experience. It doesn’t isolate anyone. It’s not screaming at anyone or telling people off, it’s asking them to come on this journey with us.” He has managed to strike that fine balance between art and politics. “My job was making sure that it was still a play. And this play is about allowing people to have their room, allowing black women to take their space.”
Director Jessica Kennedy was influenced by seeing a production of Calais Cameron’s Timbuktu – a play about the texture of black men’s lives in modern Britain. She describes the production as the “realest, funniest thing I’d ever seen”.
But even when black British experiences are given air time, men’s stories are usually the default. Kennedy knew from the get go that she wanted to create a theatrical snapshot of black women’s lives. “I thought: we need a play for black women because we’ve got experiences that we want to share too. I don’t think a lot of people know what we go through or see our side to the story.”
The power of Queens of Sheba lies in its authenticity. The director was inspired by interviews researching misogynoir – in particular an interview with a woman involved in an incident at the DSTRKT nightclub in London, when black women were denied entry for being too dark and too fat. For this project Kennedy organised focus groups of black women to share their stories – an experience she describes as “phenomenal”. Jessica Hagan then wrote spoken word pieces inspired by those focus groups, which Calais Cameron put together for the stage.
Queens of Sheba was first performed at Camden People’s Theatre in London, to audiences where people of colour were in the majority. Coming to the Edinburgh Fringe—a largely and, for some, notoriously white arts festival—could have been a risk. But Kennedy describes the Fringe as a breath of fresh air. “Our third show sold out, which speaks for itself. There is a demand for black women’s stories to be told.”
Queens of Sheba has since sold out again and Kennedy is hopeful that the play’s success will encourage other women of colour to perform at the festival. “Maybe other black or Asian actresses looking at Edinburgh will think they won’t fit in or people won’t want to see their work, but I don’t think that’s true. There is a demand here for actors and actresses of colour.”
Theatre is a powerful way to spread a message, an encouragement to the team. Kennedy is optimistic that black women will find comfort in knowing they’re not alone, and hopes other people will be encouraged to challenge racism and sexism after seeing Queens of Sheba: “I want for everyone to stand together in solidarity against misogynoir when they see it happening.”
Calais Cameron wants to change hearts and minds too. “If you’re a white man who fetishises black women, or if you’re a black man that doesn’t respect black women, then I want you to be feel uncomfortable, to question that and realise, ‘I am doing something that’s wrong and I need to change'. I think theatre can do that – it can bring about change because it’s educational as much as it is entertaining.”
Whether or not Queens of Sheba will bring lasting change to the Edinburgh Fringe remains to be seen. But it is significant that a show with a completely black cast and creative team is making waves here. With two sell-out performances to its name, and the likelihood of more to come, Queens of Sheba has found a home here. In Edinburgh, the Queens are telling their stories. And in Edinburgh, people are listening.