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Toronto Artist-Activist Nikki Shaffeeullah Creates a New Play That Offers a Multi-Generational Look

Written by Tiara jade Chutkhan

Coming to Tarragon Theatre in Toronto is A Poem for Rabia, a new play created by Indo-Caribbean artist-activist Nikki Shaffeeullah.

In A Poem for Rabia, Shaffeeullah takes us on an epic journey across time, oceans and tectonic shifts in political history. Spanning across three different periods in time, the play offers a multi-generational look at the Indo-Caribbean diaspora through its main characters; three queer Indo-Caribbean women from the same bloodline, Zahra, Betty and Rabia.

Zahra is a disillusioned activist in 2053, navigating a Canada that has just abolished prisons; Betty, in 1953 British Guiana, is caught between her new secretarial job at the Governor’s office and the growing national independence movement; and Rabia, an Indian domestic worker in 1853, is abducted by colonial ‘recruiters’ and sent sailing from Calcutta to the Caribbean on an indentured labour ship.

“I've been working on the play on and off for 10 years,” Shaffeeullah said. “The idea sat in the back of my head until about 2017 or 2018 when I started writing very slowly. In 2019, I started working in collaboration with other artists, doing workshops with actors, reading drafts out loud and then moving towards production in the past two years. It's been a journey.”

The process of creating A Poem for Rabia was one of multi-layered explorations for Shaffeeullah. She explained that her curiosity about her personal relationship to the world as well as the complex colonial histories of the Caribbean inspired her to dive deeper into her own identities along with the queer and activist spaces she works in. Shaffeeullah spent time at the Walter Rodney archives in Georgetown, Guyana looking at her family's migration records and having conversations with friends and family members to help build the foundation for her character's. With the stories and knowledge she collected, Shaffeeullah looked to connect it all into one thought.

“I come from legacies of exploitation, but also from legacies of abolition. And so there's something really exciting and empowering about that thought.”

Audiences are in for a treat as the set design for A Poem for Rabia is visually rich, an element Shaffeeullah and her team developed over a period of two years. Most important was the relationship with water, a major theme and metaphor in the play. Shaffeeullah describes its use on stage as a conduit between lands and water and something that we are made of. Given its significance within the story, she felt it was necessary that the actors could play in it throughout the performance.

“Water is something that is necessary for life and water is something that can take life and can nourish. It felt really simple, clear, but complex like a landing spot for all those themes. It was really cool that we were able to play with that early in the process,” Shaffeeullah said.

A Poem for Rabia is multi-layered with themes of futurism, resistance, justice, indenture and many more. Shaffeeullah explained that time and inheritance are two of core themes. Inheritance looks at the things we receive from one another both physically and spiritually, while time is often connected to our sense of major events and time since those events have happened. She particularly draws a connection to time and colonialism, the way a few hundred years is often looked at as a large span of time, while only a few generations of ancestors separates us from the events of indentureship and slavery.

“The idea that time is big makes it hard for those of us who come from legacies of experiences of colonization to understand how those experiences still exist in our lives today”

Shaffeeullah shared that during her research, she observed the younger generations to be more curious about their roots post colonialism. She notes that 2017 was the one hundred year anniversary of the abolition of indentured labour, allowing the Indo-Caribbean community enough distance to now have conversations and reflect on the legacies that we’ve come from.

“I think as Indo-Caribbeans, we get to reflect on where we come from through witnessing and in collaboration with other communities who are doing that in different ways,” Shaffeeullah said.

A Poem for Rabia will be brought to life by an amazing team and cast including co-directors Clare Preuss and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and assistant director, Becky Ablack as well as actors Virgilia Griffith, Michelle Mohammed, Adele Noronha, Jay Northcott, Anand Rajaram and Nikki Shaffeeullah herself.

For those coming to see the play, Shaffeeullah shares this:

“I hope that people leave feeling curious about themselves and about the world… I hope that people feel empowered to ask questions and they feel excited to reflect in new ways. The play is for many audiences. It's definitely for Caribbean audiences, it's for queer audiences. It is for people who are interested in “what is a better world and how do we get there?””

A Poem for Rabia is presented by Tarragon Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre, and Undercurrent Creations. It premieres on October 25, 2023 and will be in theatre until November 12, 2023. To purchase tickets, visit Tarragon Theatre’s website.

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