Review: Uptown's Classical Theatre of Harlem Shines Downtown

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

Oct. 09, 2016

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.