Bringing the true story of Sarah, an African girl adopted by Queen Victoria, to life on stage this January. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Eclipse Theatre are staging a new comedy drama about cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation and imperialism.
Brighton, 1862. A day in the life of Sarah, an African girl, adopted by Queen Victoria and raised in the Queen’s circles. Today is the eve of her having to return to Africa but will she go?
The present. A day in the life of Sarah, a black middle-class woman staying in a Cheshire village with her husband and small child. They are paid a visit by well-meaning neighbours who have something to confess.
These two stories intertwine in this new modern comedy by Janice Okoh. I spoke to Shannon Hayes who plays Princess Sarah.
“I am playing a character that has been erased from history,” Shannon says. “It’s an important show because a majority of productions about black people are based around slavery or being in a gang. This play almost turns it on its head because for once, I am playing a very well spoken black girl who is a princess.
“Through history she existed and she is real, so the fact stories like this aren’t regularly represented on stage doesn’t make any sense.”
Working with Eclipse Theatre, they are a theatre company with a movement to create a body of work that’s all about putting black British stories that aren’t told on stage. “They’ve been so committed to that mission and it’s such a great initiative,” Shannon says. “I am so happy to be part of it.”
It’s an interesting new production that blends period drama and comedy with modern day. “It’s a play set in three acts and each act has a really different type of comedy,” Shannon explains.
“Act one is hilarious because it’s a real comedy of manners. It’s set in a tea party and tea is a running theme in the show. The comedy comes out of people being polite and following the rules but having an underlying tension. This is masked with the intention to come across as very well mannered, but when that slips it becomes incredibly funny.”
Sarah is a character that has been through a lot of trauma in her life before she is adopted by Queen Victoria. “When we meet her in act one she has been through so much, but she is only 19 so the trauma hasn’t really manifested itself yet,” Shannon explains. “She doesn’t really realise until she gets older in act three. I’ve explored the character through parallels of my own life. Especially with feeling like I didn’t quite fit in at school, being the only black girl. That’s how I’ve really understood the role.”
Aside from the importance of telling the story, Shannon has really enjoyed being able to get to grips with the acting challenges in the role. “The biggest learning curve has been engaging with the period elements of the show,” Shannon says. “There is so much to think about, in terms of the way they move, the etiquette and the way they pour tea – I’ve had to learn a lot about tea.”
It’s an entertaining production that blends comedy and drama to tell a powerful story. “I want people to leave really thinking about what it means to be racially aware or ‘woke’,” Shannon says. “What it really means to be like that and to think about the experiences and interactions white people and black people have with people of the other race and whether or not they are as woke as they think they are.
I’d also love for the audience to see themselves in the characters and question their beliefs and question how open they think they are. Often we think we are really engaged with all of these issues but actually if we look deeper we see we have more work to do.”
The Gift is on at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry until Saturday 25th of January, tickets and information can be found on their website.