Black Ensemble

The concept behind Jackie Taylor’s Great African Queens is promising enough: pay tribute to some of the most neglected figures in world history and thereby gain insight into overcoming current patterns of inequality. Weaving together monologues, songs, and dances that depict the forgotten histories of women who ruled over African nations centuries ago, Taylor strives to inspire the women in her audience and to remind the men it wasn’t so long ago they would have been considered inferior.

As the lights go down for Black Ensemble’s production, which Taylor also directed, drumbeats echo through the house, and as a fluorescent map of Africa is illuminated, the drums come to seem heartbeats and the rivers on the map veins through which pump the spirits of the women who ruled this continent. But regrettably, though Great African Queens has quite a bit of heart, there isn’t nearly enough creative juice to keep the show alive.

The first act is composed mainly of monologues, delivered by five performers who portray the eponymous queens and describe the lives of others. We learn of the enigmatic Queen Nefertari, the eternally enticing Queen Cleopatra, the regal Queen Tiye, the brilliant Queen Makeda, and the ultrapowerful Queen Hatshepsut. The second act is a rather disjointed collection of songs, dance numbers, and first-person monologues delivered in the actresses’ own personas; it attempts to show how 20th-century women can use the examples of these ancient rulers to become all they want to be. As Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night” blares out of speakers, the women boogie around the stage, pumping their fists in the air. Then they ask the women in the audience to stand up and acknowledge their own strength and wisdom.

Although more than a few people might find this a bit patronizing, what ultimately cripples Great African Queens is the shoddy way it’s been put together. Certainly the lives of these women could make for a compelling, rewarding piece of theater, and there’s quite a bit of historical material out there Taylor could have used to make her show dramatically interesting and educational. But she relies predominantly on dry, World Book-style biographical statements, which characterize the queens in only the sketchiest ways. Characters trot on, brag of their military (or, in Cleopatra’s case, sexual) conquests, and trot back with barely any other elucidation of their lives. The dance numbers, choreographed by Taylor and Horace Brown, are rather lackluster and unsteadily performed. The songs are not memorable, and one of them is sung distinctly off-key.

Even more disheartening is the apparently uncritical way Taylor sees her subjects, not allowing for faults of any sort. Little if any consideration has been given to the possibility that tyranny and subjugation of the masses might not be desirable in a ruler, even if she is a “great African queen.” Several queens boast that they are “great military strategists” and tell of how they “expanded their empires,” but with no acknowledgment of what this might have entailed. One queen tells us that “the commoners were of no consequence; my power was unchallenged.” Even more revealing of the glorification of imperialism is the list of possible jobs the actors instruct the women in the audience to consider: among them are head of NASA, chief of the IRS, and director of the CIA.

Taylor’s script contains a couple of linguistic and historical mistakes. At one point we’re told of an ancient society that was “a matriarch ruled by women.” A biblical anecdote refers to the rather dubious occasion of King David’s christening.

Taylor’s aim–educating us about the powerful roles African women have played and could pursue now–might have been better served if she’d chosen to examine the life of just one of these historical figures. As it stands, her pageant of two-dimensional characters would probably function best as a presentation for school assemblies. Then again, those students would probably be better off at the library.