Princess Essex review – Anne Odeke gives spark to Black British history lesson

Bush theatre, London
This one-woman play steers through characters with charm, but is held back by a story that is less than the sum of its parts

Princess Dinubolu of Senegal hit the headlines in 1908 for entering a beauty pageant in Southend-on-Sea. It was controversial for a Black woman to be part of such a competition and she got as far as the second round at the Kursaal amusement park in Essex. But mystery swirls around this maverick historical figure. Who was she, what did she look like and where did she go?

Anne Odeke’s show – a combination of theatre, standup and lecture – gives us an imaginary riff on this little-known Senegalese princess. Odeke reconceives her not as royalty but as a local Black British woman called Joanna who enters the competition in disguise.

Odeke writes and performs in the production, originally planned for the postponed Vault festival and part of the Essex on Stage season showcasing the region and its artists. It is clear she is a natural showwoman herself: she steers through multiple characters with charm, although the various turns bring some confusion, and she is particularly adept at awkward silences and knowing looks when her white characters deliver another piece of bigotry in their views on race.

But her charismatic performance is held back by a truncated story that never lifts off the ground and has too many tangential parts. A framing device features a year 10 pupil giving an assembly talk during Black History Month. It contains a history lesson with facts and messages bolted on: that the first Windrush-era ship to land in Britain was on Essex soil, in Tilbury; that a tribe was brought to Britain in the early 20th century, labelled “pygmies” and displayed on stage in a kind of human zoo; and a reminder that Africa is a continent not a country.

Odeke on stage
‘Comic talent’ … Odeke, who also wrote Princess Essex. Photograph: Tara Yarahmadi

British history certainly needs to be revised to recognise the racism of its past alongside the long, rich history of Black British communities. Plays such as Curious (featuring an 18th century runaway slave turned actor) and The Gift (featuring Sarah Bonetta Davies who Odeke briefly mentions) have created meaty dramas on the bareboned, badly documented facts around extraordinary Black British historical figures.

But this play puts the history lesson first, the drama second, and takes too many detours before reaching the central story on Princess Dinubolu (there is a comical mugging, the story of Bertha Soucaret who was from Guadeloupe and won a beauty contest in Belgium in 1888, the tale of the “pygmy” tribe) This creates confusion and slows down the pace. And just as we get to the heart of Joanna’s subterfuge when the drama begins to come to life, the story is cut short and another mini lecture bolted on for its ending. It is a great shame because the satire and intrigue in Odeke’s play is most sparky when she is in character as the Princess. She appears as clever and resourceful as one of Sarah Waters’ protagonists, having to think on her feet against hostile forces at the pageant.

Still, it remains a pleasure to watch Odeke, who has abundant comic talent – and her show gets an extra star for it.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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