PPrincess Dinubolu of Senegal made headlines in 1908 for taking part in a beauty pageant at Southend-on-Sea. It was controversial for a black woman to be part of such a competition and she went all the way to the second round at Kursaal amusement park in Essex. But mystery swirls around this nonconformist historical figure. Who was she, what did she look like and where did she go?
Anne Odeke’s show, mixing theatre, stand-up and reading, gives us an imaginary riff on this little-known Senegalese princess. Odeke re-imagines her not as royalty but as a local black British woman called Joanna who enters the competition in disguise.
Odeke writes and stars in the production, originally slated for the postponed Vault festival and part of the Essex on Stage season featuring the region and its artists. It’s clear that she’s a natural showwoman herself: she traverses multiple characters with charm, though the different turns bring some confusion, and she’s particularly adept at awkward silences and knowing glances when her white characters deliver another bit of bigotry in their views on race.
But its charismatic performance is held back by a truncated story that never gets off the ground and has too many tangential parts. A framing device features a 10th grade student giving a congregational speech during Black History Month. It contains a history lesson with bolt-on facts and messages: that the first Windrush-era ship to land in Britain was on Essex soil, at Tilbury; that a tribe was brought to Britain in the early 20th century, labeled “pygmies” and presented on stage in a kind of human zoo; and a reminder that Africa is a continent, not a country.
British history certainly needs to be overhauled to recognize the racism of its past alongside the long and storied history of Britain’s black communities. Plays such as Curious (starring an 18th century runaway slave turned actor) and The Gift (starring Sarah Bonetta Davies whom Odeke mentions briefly) created meaty dramas about stripped down and poorly 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 it gets to the central story about Princess Dinubolu (there’s a comedic assault, the story of Bertha Soucaret who was Guadeloupean and won a beauty contest in Belgium in 1888, the tale of the “pygmy” tribe) This sows confusion and slows 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-conference follows for its ending. It’s a great shame because the satire and intrigue in Odeke’s play shines brightest when she plays the character of the princess. She appears as intelligent and resourceful as any of the protagonists in Sarah Waters, having to think on her feet against hostile forces during the contest.
Still, it’s still a delight to watch Odeke, who has abundant comedic talent — and his show gets an extra star for it.