“I’ve learnt so much. The main thing is that solidarity is so important and that having a safe space of for black women is so important because it’s important that every person has a space to feel heard.”
The play Queens of Sheba is written by Jessica L. Hagan and presented by the creative movement Nouveau Riché and Omnibus Theatre. Following sold out shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 and in London, the play will do a 10 venue national tour from 26 September to 29 November 2019. Alt speaks to the director Jessica Kaliisa to connect the dots: why do Black women need this story?
How did Queen of Sheba fall into your lap?
Queens didn’t fall at all, I was fortunate enough to be part of its inception and from there watch it be beautifully and carefully constructed layer by layer by Jessica Hagan and Ryan Cameron into the piece that it is today. I had just made a documentary about ‘Misogynoir’ – the prejudice that black women specifically face, having to battle both sexism and racism simultaneously. A few weeks after completing this, I watched a play called Timbuktu, written by Ryan, that looks at the lives of four black men. After much conversation and reference to my documentary, we agreed that a play should be formed for Black Women. We held focus groups with black women who gave us their raw and authentic experiences and writer Jessica Hagan wrote Queens of Sheba from it.
Tell us about the premise of Queens of Sheba?
Queens of Sheba is very loosely based around the incident that happened at the DSTRKT night club in 2015 where four black woman were turned away due to racism and discrimination. We follow four young ladies as they take us on a journey of sisterhood whilst skilfully painting out what life is like every day as a black woman.
Are Black females voices helped by the feminist movement?
No. Feminism helps women but does not take race into account. Black women cannot separate being black from being women, they are both at the same time, so where the issue of sexism maybe be consoled through feminism the issue of racism still remains for us. It’s no secret that through history, that women of colour were left behind during the fight for suffrage. In some cases, women’s suffrage was only maintained as long it didn’t interfere with racial boundaries, meaning that white women could vote as long as black women couldn’t meaning black women didn’t receive the right to vote until almost half a century after white woman. So no, feminism doesn’t help black women unless race is taken into account. There’s a new wave of feminism where more black faces are present but there’s still a long way to go.
The play did well at Ed Fringe last year – what would you say are the reasons?
Queens is extremely relatable and hilarious. It makes people laugh whilst holding up a mirror without attacking or criticizing. It speaks to everyone in a way they understand. It’s also incredibly written. There isn’t anything like it out there at the moment and I think that’s what makes it a success.
Does being an actress make directing easier?
Yes! I wouldn’t have been able to direct if I didn’t act as I’ve had no director training. I understand what things are supposed to look like, how things are supposed to feel but most importantly respect for the other actresses so they’re able to thrive on a way that brings their play to life.
Tell us about some of the issues you wanted to highlight most when bringing the play to the stage?
The thing about Queens is that so many issues are addressed and there’s no issue larger than the other. So my goal was to make sure the whole play pulsates and every line is communicated efficiently. There are so many issues spoken of ranging from micro-aggression in the work place to fetishisation on dates to the derogation of black women in hip hop. So the whole play is a huge insight where the Queens say look this is what we go through but a reminder that we do not bow or break in spite of it.
Tell us about what you learned from Directing this play?
I’ve learnt so much. The main thing is that solidarity is so important and that having a safe space of for black women is so important because it’s important that every person has a space to feel heard. I always tell the Queens that this is their story and it only works when they bring just who they are, and because of that the play is so powerful. So I’ve also remembered the power of being your true authentic self.
Do you question your sense of belonging – where do you call home?
I don’t question it but it does get challenged. My parents are from Ghana, but I was born and raised here. I am and identify as a Ghanaian but because I was raised here and don’t speak the language fluently, my identity as a Ghanaian is challenged when I go to Ghana. Ghana is my home, that is what I know. When I go there, my sense of belonging is stronger than ever but when I’m in London again I’m constantly reminded that I don’t belong because everything I do is “different” to those who have this country in their blood – but it’s because I have different culture in mine. It’s something that took me a while to accept, but I am still grateful of my upbringing because it’s made me who I am.
Who are the characters in Queens of Sheba?
There are no characters in Queens. Only the queens themselves. These beautiful black women tell their story and they don’t need to become anything to do so.
What made you want to direct theatre?
I love to make people feel. It’s the same reason I act. It’s a different responsibility being on the other side because as a director your vision has to be so much bigger than just one character but the objective is still the same.
What are you most looking forward to with the up coming tour?
So many things! Sharing our stories with a wider audience and knowing that they’ll love it but most of all for the Queens to grow and the story to evolve with them. Three of our cast members are new since Queens first came about so it’s been a beautiful journey watching them make the stories their own.