Sheria Irving as Senemut and April Yvette Thompson as Hapshetsut in the Classical Theatre of Harlem production of "Fit for a Queen." Photo: Lelund Durond Thompson
Downtown theatre lovers have a malfunctioning HVAC uptown to thank for an unexpected dramatic treat on our doorstep. The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s world premiere of Fit for a Queen now playing at 3LD Art and Technology Center on lower Greenwich Street is an irreverent, hilarious and true story of Hatshepsut—a female pharaoh of ancient Egypt. And it’s playing here because the original venue was just too hot.
But hot is an adjective that springs to mind for this edgily stylish production that begins with a pulsating disco beat and develops into a fast-paced comedy. As dancers in Egyptian costume take the stage against a backdrop of hieroglyphics and sphinxes, we are transported to the 15th century BC. But while the plot is based on ancient history and an Egyptian queen who really became pharaoh, its focus on women in power particularly resonates today.
Here, the female pharaoh’s rise to power is orchestrated by her scheming slave-woman and lover Senemut, played by the phenomenal Sheria Irving. Senemut uses her position as favorite to influence dynastic succession when no sons are available. If the premise sounds like a history lesson, this play delivers a hilarious, beautifully written tale of what it takes to be a woman in power and how absolute power does inevitably corrupt absolutely.
Tamilla Woodward’s taut direction and the stellar cast could probably carry any play, but here the writing is both poetic and powerful and the comedy is intelligent and sharp. The wily Senemut has an evil streak that rivals many a Shakespearean villain.
Here Hatshepsut is played by a raucously regal April Yvette Thompson. Senemut smoothly manipulates her while cheating on her with a male lover played by John Clarence Stewart. Senemut also circumnavigates the Queen’s daughter, played as a hopelessly entitled brat by Shereen Macklin and undermines the golden high-top and flowery garden glove-wearing male heir apparent, a languorously humorous Eshan Bay. Senemut’s dark motives may have been born from her humble origins as an abused slave. She speeds the death of the incumbent pharaoh—the superb Gilbert Cruz in an unforgettable deathbed scene—not just to place her own candidate on the throne but to avenge his behavior to women in his harem.
Female supremacy is short-lived and the play dispatches with the female power behind the throne with surprising expediency. History barely remembers Hatshepsut because her successors ordered the record expunged and her statues defaced. So we have Shamieh to thank for redressing the balance.
It would be remiss not to mention Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s outstanding costume design that clothes the cast in covetable Egyptian-hipster gear. “Fit for a Queen” is a welcome taste of Uptown in Downtown and we can only hope that the air conditioner remains out of commission and the Classical Theatre of Harlem brings more of their quality shows to this neighborhood.
"Fit for a Queen" by Betty Shamieh is playing through October 2016 at 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St.
Directed by Tamilla Woodward. Cast includes: Eshan Bay, Gilbert Cruz, Kalon Hayward, Shereen Macklin, Sujotta Pace, Nedra Snipes, John Clarence Stewart, Portland Thomas, April Yvette Thompson, Tiffany Nicole Webb
Click here for tickets.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson