Queens of Sheba unfurl their flag early, treating the audience to We Are Family, Respect, and I’m Every Woman before the show even starts. And when it does, these four women certainly don't pull any punches. Nobody escapes their mocking ridicule and biting criticism, as they regale us with anecdotes from all aspects of their lives. "But where are you from from?" is a question they’re often asked, and they answer repeatedly that they are a mix of racism and sexism, making their theme intersectional as well as both hilarious and painful.
The repetition is deliberate, and very effective in showing how often they have to endure the same uncomfortable situations and invasive questions from those around them. They explore the workplace, navigate relationships, discuss their upbringing, and rage against the unattainable expectations and unacceptable assumptions of society as they experience it. There’s a lot of understandable anger, but the repeated refrain that most caught my attention is, “Am I being paranoid? Am I over-thinking things?” It demonstrates the self-doubt that stems from experiencing these kinds of issues every day, but also the potential for people to accuse them of being over-sensitive and unnecessarily touchy.
The funniest section for me is their caricature of the disrespect shown by black men approaching them in clubs, but their confusion and disappointment are clear when they subsequently label black men as their “biggest oppressors”. The exploration of the problematic nature of their love of hip-hop (“I’m in love with my abuser”) is powerfully portrayed. They also touch on the complexity of wanting to be proud of their heritage and true to themselves, while also wishing they could just fit in and not have to deal with the difficulties of standing out all the time.
The use of music to evoke stereotypes is well done, and the performers' a cappella skill is impressive. Some of the staging doesn't quite work in this space, as some or all of the performers are out of view of most of the audience for parts of the show. But generally they present a compelling physical presence, making good use of both movement and stillness, volume and silence.
The tone of the show moves from humour to pain to hope in an emotive arc. There’s a clear desire for comfort and understanding throughout - and they ultimately find these in each other, rather than requiring it from their audience. This show is not designed to invite those who are different from the performers into their group; it made me uncomfortable in places, but it was meant to. Queens of Sheba aren't asking for my permission or my pity, and they definitely don't need me to crown them.