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What’s on(line) + A Conversation with Nikki Shaffeeullah

June 7, 2022
What an incredible month we had! If you joined us for Hybrid by Design, thank you for coming out and tuning in to support the work of some incredible artists.

Bringing the community together to share in the experience of live art again has been an energizing reminder of why we do what we do. We hope you enjoyed it. If you weren’t able to make it this time, we hope you can join us soon! Nothing we do is possible without the generosity of community members like you. Thank you for standing by us through another exciting year of creative exploration. If you like what we do, please consider making a donation to help us continue supporting artists.

Bookmarked: A big city should be a living room for anyone without a backyard. Why not Toronto?

“I never had a backyard. Or front yard. Or basement. I had stairways, hallways, parks and benches. A living room for us. A little room for me.”

The city as a living room is sometimes a trope tossed around by urbanists, but here it really is. With summer (and record-breaking temperatures) quickly approaching, Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micallef‘s write-up on Residency artist Ian Kamau‘s short film We Went Out, commissioned by Luminato Festival, is a beautiful ode to public space.

In conversation with Nikki Shaffeeullah

Nikki Shaffeeullah is a theatre and film artist, facilitator, writer, equity worker, and community organizer. During The Theatre Centre’s 2020/21 programming year, she worked alongside Black Paris collaborator Neema Bickersteth as part of the Residency program’s Explorations stream. Earlier this year, she returned to The Theatre Centre to run a workshop for her production now called A Poem for Rabia with Why Not Theatre. We connected with her post-workshop to learn more about this work-in-progress.

Photos by Dahlia Katz

Theatre Centre: Tell us a bit about what you were working on in the space.

Nikki Shaffeeullah: I spent a week with a great team of artists workshopping a new play I’m creating, A Poem for Rabia. It was previously called Betty’s House — though by the end of the week I had changed the name. A Poem for Rabia weaves together the stories of three women from the same bloodline, in three different lands impacted by colonization, in three different states undergoing major political shifts, across 200 years: Rabia, on an indentured labour ship departing Calcutta, India in 1853; Betty, in Guyana as it begins to undergo the messy process of decolonizing from Britain in 1953; and Zahra, a queer activist in Toronto in 2053, navigating a Canada that has just legally abolished prisons. This workshop week was a collaboration between my company Undercurrent Creations and Why Not Theatre. I’m thrilled to be a resident artist with Why Not this season, which has been a very supportive phase in the development of this piece.

TC: Where did you get the inspiration to build the liberated world you depict in the future of A Poem for Rabia?

NS: One storyline of the piece is set in the future, and in it, we see some liberatory things – the institution of prisons has been legally abolished – but it is a world still full of mess, with people navigating what it means to be in a changing society. The inspiration for this came from a few different places. I was inspired by my participation in an Arrivals Legacy workshop led by Diane Roberts several years ago, where I had the opportunity to build a character based on a personal ancestor.

Photo by Sonja Rainey

I chose my mother’s mother’s mother and thought a lot about the world she lived in: early and mid-twentieth century Guyana (then British Guiana), a country going through the process of political decolonization, where people – mostly folks whose ancestors were enslaved Africans and indentured Indians – were fighting for independence, for a different future. And those futures – including our present – are messy. I find it useful to think about how previous generations have fought against colonial systems, and have won. Though those wins haven’t been perfect, and colonial systems persist, but when the present fight is feeling exhausting and impossible, I remember that our present – mess and all – is someone else’s impossible future. I guess I’m interested in the mess.

Another inspiration is the anthology Octavia’s Brood, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, which is a collection of visionary fiction short stories by activists and writers. The editors define visionary fiction as a kind of speculative fiction that depicts freer worlds, worlds where the dominant narratives of power of subverted. And I guess, I’m inspired to push back against the reality of living in the world right now where fascist movements wrongly claim that whiteness and masculinity and Christianity are under threat, which means oppressed peoples are made to insist that our oppressions are in fact real. A painful byproduct of that phenomenon is that we internalize a belief that our oppressions are inevitable and eternal. It is important to remember that they are not. It is important to imagine what our futures can look like and that even if they are still messy like our present, they can be closer to free. It feels imperative to remember that oppression does not have to be inevitable.

Photo by Sonja Rainey

TC: I find the generational aspect of this piece so fascinating, specifically in that the characters don’t have first-hand experience of each other despite being family. The parallel stories are such a beautiful way to show ancestral throughlines. I’ve heard you speak about inter-generational relationships a few times, and I’m curious to know why you think ties to our ancestors (past, present, and future) are so important. What can they teach us?

NS: They can teach us so much. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about how useful it is for me personally to have my linear relationship to time disrupted.

I just think it’s so useful to remember that so much has already happened. Every wonderful, liberatory thing that seems impossible has probably already happened, in some form, at some time. It’s grounding. I feel like we can get caught up in the centrism of our own lifetimes, especially in movements for justice, and it’s actually quite nourishing to remember that we come from legacies of love and change, and we are continuing that work in service of future generations. It’s worth interrogating that we (for example, here in Toronto) live in a society that is a vivid mashup of different cultures – Indigenous, settler, diasporas from all over the world – and many of those revere and honour ancestors, whether that be in religious, spiritual, or social/cultural ways. And yet, the Western capitalist umbrella that we all also live under insists on invisiblizing and disposing of elders, pre-colonial knowledge, and community-based ways of doing things. I too live in these contradictions, and I get a lot out of stories that challenge my modern, normative relationship to time.

TC: In your wildest dreams, what would the future of the arts look like?

NS: The future of arts has space for all the past iterations of the arts. It has art as performance, art with artist and audience across from each other, but also art as ritual space, art integrated into life cycle moments, communal gatherings of revelry, personal meditations of grief and healing, and public spectacles of debate and thought. I think there will always be storytellers — those who have a particular gift and passion for storytelling — but I think in the future, we will have abundant resources and support and interest for every single person to engage in storytelling when they want and need to.

Header: ‘The Observer Effect’ by Nehal El-Hadi and Coco Guzmàn. Photo by Greg Sparks.