Stratford’s First Black Cleopatra

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Jessica Mehta

To mark National Poetry Day, I’m pleased to post ‘Stratford’s First Black Cleopatra’, a poem by Native American poet, Jessica Mehta. Jessica was the Poet in Residence with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival in June. Her residency was a collaboration with the Hosking Houses Trust.
Her poem was inspired by Iqbal Khan’s production of Antony and Cleopatra for the RSC this year, with the astonishing Josette Simon as Cleopatra.
Jessica’s poem is especially topical, too, in light of the U.K.’s Black History Month (October).

Stratford’s First Black Cleopatra


This is naked: to stand


on famous stages, boards buffed soft

by white feet in stark

contrast to your amber.

To know you’re not


Cleopatra, but

the first Black Cleopatra. Who cares

about decades of training,

the scars and the hurts? Do this:


remove your wig before throngs

of pale schoolchildren wriggling

in seats. Display your shorn locks,

a caged lion in the ring. Brush off

the shame, pretend it’s a lover

who beckons. One with satin pillowcases

who says you’re beautiful


with your hair wrapped, all

that natural kink. Strip off


your robe, showcase your body—

stand tall in your nakedness. Let

the spotlights warm your skin, pray


your nipples don’t harden under

stares. Hike up your lips, show us

your teeth. Bred good and strong

as a horse. What’s the difference


between this and ancestors

on the auction block? We pay, we prod

we judge and we weigh. Afterward,


playbills rolled in damp hands,

rushings to taxis. And we’ll say


She did good, real good,

that first black Cleopatra.


by Jessica Mehta, commissioned by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

For an audio recording of Stratford’s First Black Cleopatra, click here.
Find out more about Jessica Mehta by clicking here.
If you live within reach of the Shakespeare Centre, then join us this evening (Thursday 28 September) at the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street, CV37 6QW for an Open Mic Poetry event from 7.00pm.
Happy National Poetry Day!

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