Photo credit: Sarah Marguier

Raleigh, North Carolina:

Queen Nandi, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and the Queen of Sheba are all historical names you might be familiar with. What all four of these names have in common are their long reigns throughout Africa. Culture Mill‘s When We Were Queens reminds us through the art of song, dance, and acting that African peoples once were revered and honored, but throughout many years of history have been beaten down and tormented, causing their crowns to crack.

Commissioned by NC State LIVE and co-produced by Wilson Center (CFCC) and Weatherspoon Art Museum (UNCG), and co-presented by NC State LIVE and the North Carolina Museum of Art, When We Were Queens opened in the East Building of NCMA to a sold-out crowd, eager to fill their senses. The hour-and-a-half performance explored our three main human senses – sound, sight, and smell – through an intimate storyline.

Before being seated for the main performance, artists Murielle Elizéon and Shana Tucker approached the audience to lay a basis for the story yet to be told. They shared their backgrounds, Elizéon being from a French background and Tucker from an American one. Through their multidisciplinary art performance, they were going to share their unique experiences of being of African descent, and perhaps the way they were alike too. Elizéon explained the importance of the white gaze and how that would ultimately change their experiences being Black in America.

Shana Tucker (cello) and Muirelle Elizeon (dancer). Photo credit: Sarah Marguier

With the expectation being set for a multidisciplinary performance, I was curious how the audience would come into play, if at all. To my pleasure, Elizéon and Tucker made the audience feel completely engrossed the moment they introduced themselves. “Notice lights, shadows, colors, people,” they encouraged, “Look at your hands. Who do they look like? Your father? Your great-great-great grandmother?…how far does your memory go?” These questions were meant to prepare us for a deeply personal exploration into ancestry and memory, and how they are affected, or shaped, by sound. We also got a taste of Tucker’s phenomenal voice that she would continue to show off later in the night.

Next to me, my mother asked me “Does she [Tucker] mean that sound reminds of us of certain memories? Or does she mean sound creates memories?” “Both,” I responded.

In between the brief audience discussion and the actual performance, audience members were asked to wait a few minutes before proceeding downstairs to be seated. This waiting, however brief, completely extracted me from the feelings that were intentionally being made just moments before. As we made our way downstairs, we were greeted by a stoic Elizéon and Tucker, completely redressed in breathtaking costumes, standing on two white podium boxes. There was an eerie silence, met with melancholy lighting, that immediately set the mood for the evening. Elizéon was draped in a paper-mache-like skirt, a long green and gold beaded necklace (Note: at this point, this show contains nudity), and a face mask that covered her eyes and had a pointed nose. Tucker stood with her face uncovered but dressed in a white jumpsuit that had a touch of sparkle when the light hit it. Both performers were barefoot as they slowly began rotating on their podiums. Up until they were completely facing backward, I had not registered they were even moving. Their control and unwavering presence took me by surprise and I was immediately engrossed.

“I was completely in a daze,” my mother would later tell me, “I tried to look away and distract myself, but I couldn’t.”

I could tell that Elizéon was representing a queen, who once ruled but was now filled with such torment and anguish, and Tucker was her counterpart, seen through the White American gaze, and living in our present time. Even though the two women were clearly separate from one another, they felt one and the same, perhaps even the same woman in different lifetimes. These blurred lines continued to change for me during different parts of the performance.

Elizéon spent most of her performance moving and dancing on the ground, completely capturing audiences with an intense gaze. At times, there was a sense of discomfort and fear rising in me, but that just reminded me how phenomenal of a performance Elizéon was giving. Tucker stayed on her white podium taking a hand in manipulating the sound. Tucker sang cries and moans into a microphone that was manipulated by a soundboard and embodied by Elizéon. These cries immediately sank into my gut and made me picture Elizéon as a battered, beaten, and broken-down queen with Tucker above her crying in the remembrance of the pain of her ancestors. When the two performers finally came together, Tucker brought out a cello, performing so beautifully that I wished it went on a little longer. The instrument was a main focal point of the entire piece and seemed to represent the memories of the two women, with Tucker learning to hold, manipulate, and make new memories. When Elizéon’s turn came to play the cello, the sounds were quite ugly and hard to hear; the pain she was feeling in her body and her heart was portrayed by the instrument.

As the show came to a close, Elizéon discarded her paper gown and the music shifted to an up-tempo jazz number. The two women danced together carrying large and theatrical facial expressions, a complete 180 from the first half of the show. Audience members clapped along to the beat and seemed to find this section more entertaining than the last. However entertaining, it was worn with an air of omniscient dread that made my hair stand up on my arms.

The last few moments of the show I will save as a surprise for new audience members. When We Were Queens is a stunningly beautiful, yet uncomfortable exploration of the human body – its ancestry, its ability to hold and possess new memory, and its need for connection and affirmation. Even a few days after seeing the performance, I am still thinking about it and the ways it changed the way I view African queens throughout history. This performance proved that art is certainly subjective, but it is always successful in telling a full-body sensory story that will live with you for days to come.

When We Were Queens continues through Friday, February 16. To learn more please follow this link.