A West African woman from the eighteenth-century is not your typical theatre protagonist. Queen Pokou, an intimate play byDean Atta, is based on an inspirational story of a woman who lived an incredible life in Africa during the 1700s. We see a female leader of the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana, dealing with making a devastating choice between saving her child or her kingdom.
Director Franko Figuetredo thought of putting on the production after a book of Queen Pokou fell at his feet from a book shelf. Fascinated by this heroine, his research led him to the facts and myths of her life. Although there are several versions of the story, we know that she had to flee with her tribe from Ghana, and ended up somewhere on the Ivory Coast.
This play shows us the story of her exodus, the meddling of her jealous younger sister, and a villainous diviner whose poisonous predictions have implications for Queen Pokou and those around her.
The play’s simple presentation is a real strong point. The stage is almost bare, and there are just three actors who switch between roles seamlessly. The African vibe is also enhanced, bluntly yet effectively, by the constant presence of the drummer on stage.
The characters speak in an old-fashioned British accent, which is perhaps for the sake of retaining familiarity; by drawing parallels between the turbulent plight of some of the historical royal figures of the western world and the struggles of ancient African leaders. However, I could not help wondering if the script, which was written skilfully and entirely in verse, could have found some additional strength by being spoken in authentically African accents.
A lot of the play’s winning moments lie in its intensity, created by moments when the drums feature heavily, the dances grow more energetic and the actors step into the audience, chanting. It becomes a little disconcerting, and at times I could feel people squirming at those moments when the line between stage and audience blurs for an uncomfortable stretch of time. The moments of song were also saturated with passion; half monologue, half chants, they were used as lamentations and insights into what the characters were most preoccupied about.
The play is an emotional insight into the story of a strong woman in a difficult and heartbreaking situation. From a stylistic point of view, it is refreshing and powerful. It is definitely worth catching a show when it tours again next year.
Queen Pokou was at the Stratford Circus. For more information about the production, visit Stonecrabs Theatre’s website here.