When Timothy Lawrence started writing a play about ancient Egypt, he knew what he wanted it to look like. The focus would be one of Egypt’s warrior kings, and the cast would be large, befitting an epic production.
So it surprises even him that his play Her Majesty Herself, being performed at the Thurgood Marshall Center this Saturday and Sunday, is about Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most famous female rulers, and is a one-woman show.
“I started by looking for a male figure, a powerful warrior,” Lawrence says. He says he settled on King Tuthmose III. Tuthmose, known as “the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt,” expanded the ancient empire’s borders to its furthest extent—-north of Meggido, and south to the Nile’s fourth cataract. (In present day terms, that’s mid-Syria in the north, and mid-Sudan in the south.)
“He made Egypt into a world military power,” explains Lawrence. “But every time I researched him, Hatshepsut kept coming up.”
Hatshepsut, Tuthmose’ aunt and step-mother, initially assumed control of Egypt after the death of her husband (and Tuthmose’ uncle), King Tuthmose II. While Tuthmose III was the heir of his uncle, he was considered “too young to rule,” and Hatshepsut originally took power as Regent. However, Hatshepsut later declared herself king in her own right, and ruled Egypt until her death, with Tuthmose spending his time away from the capital on military campaigns. Tuthmose III, upon his step-mother’s death, took power, continued his military conquests, and in his later years tried to erase any indications of his step-mother’s time as Egypt’s ruler—-including chiseling her name off monuments.
All of which, as far as Lawrence is concerned, makes for excellent theater.
“She was more powerful than Cleopatra or Nefertiti, yet most people don’t know about her,” Lawrence says. “She is a feminist icon. She’s an Afro-centric hero, too.”
The 2007 discovery of Hatshepsut’s mummy sealed the deal for Lawrence. “That just floored me,” he recalls. Lawrence began writing immediately.
“I said to myself ‘this story needs to be told’ [and] it was just flowing, you know,” he says. “It started writing itself.”
Lawrence hadn’t really worked in theater before. A 1991 alum of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, he had majored in visual arts, not theater. His first draft was a 15-actor work, with many of the actors playing multiple parts—-an expensive order for any theater company to stage.
“I didn’t know that,” Lawrence says. “I had no grants, no sponsors.”
Lawrence instead started pouring his own money into the piece.
“It became a labor of love,” he says. “I would take my paychecks from T-Mobile and dump it into the work… I spent my rent money—-I near got evicted every time I staged it.”
Lawrence ultimately did manage to get a staged reading done in Baltimore, followed by a limited staging at the Salvation Army in Southeast D.C. last year.
However, he decided to write a new script, turning the 15-man show into a one-woman show.
“I thought about stripping the play down to its core,” Lawrence says. “You lose a lot, but you gain so much more.”
Playing Hatshepsut is Cheniqua O. Blaggrove, a graduate of Howard University’s theater department. Lawrence hopes this production will draw a large audience. “It really needs a successful run somewhere,” he says. “It needs people in the seats to grow.”
His Majesty Herself. Thurgood Marshall Center, 1816 12th St. NW. March 19 at 8 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. $20-$25. (202) 509-2711.
Photo courtesy of Timothy Lawrence