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Nikki Shaffeeullah: At its best, theatre can advance equity and justice not just in content, but in process and form as well

Nikki Shaffeeulah plays a disillusioned activist living in Toronto in 2053 in her play, A Poem for Rabia. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Playwright, artist, and cultural facilitator Nikki Shaffeeullah maintains that “art should disrupt the status quo.” On her website, she also declares that art should “centre the margins, engage with the ancient, dream of the future, and be for everyone”.

Her new play, A Poem for Rabia, which is being presented by Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, seeks to accomplish all these things. Featuring Vancouver actor Adele Noronha in the title role, it tells the story of three queer women living on three different continents in three separate centuries.

Rabia is a domestic worker abducted by colonial recruiters in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1853. She’s put on a ship carrying indentured labourers to the Caribbean.

Another character, Betty (Michelle Mohammed), works in British Guiana in 1953 as the anti-colonial movement is gaining momentum. The third character, Zahra (played by Shaffeeullah), is living in Toronto in 2053 after Canada has abolished prisons.

Nikki Shaffeeullah Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Tarragon Theatre is presenting Nikki Shaffeeullah’s A Poem for Rabia. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Shaffeeullah in her own words

Toronto Spark caught up with Shaffeeullah to learn more about this production. You can read her responses to four questions below.

Toronto Spark: Can you talk about the origins of A Poem for Rabia? How did you come up with the idea of centering a play around three women living in three different centuries on three different continents?

Nikki Shaffeeullah: I engaged in a series of creative and research processes over the course of several years and the result was A Poem for Rabia—I didn’t know what the play would be when I started. In fact, for several years, the play-in-progress was titled Betty’s House (Betty, Rabia, and Zahra are the three central characters of the play) and was telling a slightly different story. My process was focused on exploring what the lives and experiences of people who could have been my ancestors. I was curious about how better understanding (intellectually, emotionally, etc.) how better understanding how past generations have enacted revolutions can embolden us to create better futures. A lot of things that are true now once seemed impossible.

Toronto Spark: What was behind the decision to situate part of the play in British Guiana in the early 1950s?

NS: In 1953, the British enacted a coup that removed the first democratically elected ministers in what was then called British Guiana. A team of politicians who were invested in the anti-colonial struggle, racial justice, and labour rights, ascended to power. Their left-leaning politics were ultimately perceived as too threatening to the British (and Americans) in the Cold War context. In the decades that followed, political events, and specifically a significant amount of colonial intervention from Western powers, led a painful divide between the African and Indian ethnic majorities of the country that persists today. I feel grief that ongoing colonialism prevented what could have been strong solidarity between descendants of slavery and descendants of indenture. So, looking at this moment in time felt like a right spot to ask some ‘what ifs’ in the storytelling.

Theatre speaks to emotional intelligence

Toronto Spark: Migration has been addressed in different ways over the year through film and theatre. What sets A Poem for Rabia apart from other productions that deal with this topic?

NS: I suppose migration is not the subject itself—it is certainly a fact and a context. A Poem for Rabia looks at the ways in which a changing world, including political shifts and mass migration (including forced and semi-forced), impact bodies, relationships, and communities, across generations.

Toronto Spark: What role can theatre play in advancing equity and racial justice?

NS: At its best, theatre can advance equity and justice not just in content, but in process and form as well. Because theatre can speak to emotional intelligences as well as other kinds of intelligence, it can help build empathy and encourage nuance across difficult conversations. I’d recommend a resource I’m proud to have curated with a team of incredible artists called Stages of Transformation. It really specifically looks at what transformative justice and the arts have to do with each other.

Tarragon Theatre is presenting  Nikki Shaffeeullah’s A Poem for Rabia in association with Nightwood Theatre and Undercurrent Creations in Toronto until November 12. For tickets and information, visit the Tarragon Theatre website.

Learn more about arts and culture on the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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