Review from SummerWorks: The Archivist

by Lynn on August 9, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

Written and performed by Shaista Latif

At the Pia Bouman School of Ballet and Creative Movement.

I first saw Shaista Latif’s wonderful work in her play Graceful Rebellions in SummerWorks 2014. In it she talked about things she knew: being a Canadian of Afghan decent; being expected to follow traditional Afghan customs; gender issues; feelings of displacement and isolation. Her voice was new, true open-hearted and she had the most compelling sense of performance. This was a new voice I wanted to hear again so I looked out for her work.

She performed a segment of The Archivist at the Rhubarb Festival in 2015 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It was an archive of photos, videos and confessional expanding on the themes of gender issues, family dynamics, living with her family but having to leave because of problems. Again the writing and performance were compelling. She talks softly but the heft of the ideas and the implications for growing as a person are weighty. One certainly got the idea that Shaista Latif had to contend with a lot of issues to live a psychologically, emotionally healthy life.

In 2016 The Archivist was expanded to an hour in length and presented as part of the Riser Project at the Theatre Centre. The themes introduced in 2015 were further expanded and developed. Again, some of the details of her life were harrowing but she handled them with sensitivity and a certain grace in living with difficult circumstances. While some of the details might have soured someone to life, one didn’t get that sense from Latif’s writing or performance. Again, the voice is calm, the face smiling with humour. It’s noted that each performance will be different.

For SummerWorks 2017 The Archivist is now expanded to 75 minutes. There is a large “Persian” rug on the floor and a large screen up against the back wall. For about three minutes at the top of the show a video is projected on the screen of two hands, wrists and forearms fluttering and twisting gracefully around each other. The nails are polished and there are many bracelets around both wrists. It looks like a hand dance from another country. India? The Middle East? Don’t know. The accompanying music is rhythmically repetitive percussion that wears thin quickly.

Eventually Shaista Latif enters wearing a summery dress. She smiles her beaming smile at us and says softly, “Hello Fuckers.” My eyes widen and I’m thinking, “Excuse me?? She greets us again with “Hello Fuckers”. I exhale slowly and think “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

She talks of her family. Her father was loving and her mother seemed distant. Her mother gave her four year old daughter firm advice when she went off to school not to let anyone touch her. There was no other explanation and that led to a terrible misunderstanding which resulted in Latif getting into trouble.

Her brother was revered because he was a boy. Latif learned early about the issues facing girls and how she had to fight for equal attention. Pictures of the family are projected on the screen. There is an on-going video of her parents wedding. Latif notes that the carpet is like the magic carpet in Aladdin. She asks for a volunteer from the audience to come up and help her with a section of the show. An eager young man obliges. They sit on the carpet facing us. A song from the Disney film of Aladdin is played, the man begins singing in a full voice that is woefully off-key while scenes of war and bombing are projected on the screen behind them. It could be scenes from the war in Afghanistan. I feel embarrassed for that young man that he was used in such a way. He doesn’t seem to know what is projected behind him. He is thanked when the song is finished and he returns to his seat. I tightened my seat belt.

There are references to how she was bullied at school; how teachers were not supportive or helpful. There is a video clip projected on the large screen of a TV interview Latif did with an obviously inept interviewer in Halifax. Latif was talking about a production of Graceful Rebellions that was playing there. The interviewer—a blonde picked for her looks not her reporting skills no doubt—was obviously out of her depth. She couldn’t get her head around the subject matter of gender issues or the Afghan experience. She stammered her questions and seemed incredulous with the answers. Latif for her part was calm, cool and gracious in her answers but with just the slightest hint of gentle pointed irony that the interviewer missed, but we got. That would have been enough to sell its point, but Latif is not satisfied for this clip to speak for itself. She sits on the carpet facing us. For every faux pas of the interviewer, Latif indicates her contempt in body language and facial expressions. Irony is now replaced by heavy sarcasm.

I wanted to pronounce Shaista Latif’s name properly should I ever meet her. I asked a friend who worked with her how to pronounce the name. He spent time telling me the proper pronunciation of the first name especially, the nuance, and the proper placement of the accent. Imagine my stunned surprise when Latif says in her show that everybody pronounces her name wrong, giving the example of the incorrect way, which was the way I was taught. She then pronounces it correctly and completely differently. She said it was easier to let people say it wrong than correct them. Excuse me?! Easier for whom? Latif, who doesn’t seem to care? Or for us, who are eager to get it right? It is her name. We owe it to everybody to get the name right.

Latif ends the show with another video clip of a stylish woman in a designer gown, singing “Thanks for the Memories.” The woman is Nancy Reagan singing at a tony gathering. Latif introduces her as ‘the evil Nancy Reagan’ and begins to sing along with Reagan. The whole segment then becomes another send-up. One wonders why this is included, so when Latif ends the song and the evening with “Thanks” one is confused as to what she is saying thanks for if it comes at the end of this added section of sarcasm.

This is the description of The Archivist from the SummerWorks catalogue of shows: “Shaista Latif is a lot of different people. She’s created them all to serve you. War, Sex, Money and Art. As a response, Shaista makes an archive of music, text, video and stories to see if she can create one identity that will serve all.”

Ahhh this is one problem with the show. The intention is misguided. We are different things to different people whether we try to be the same for all or not. So trying to “create one identity that will serve all” is in an impossible task. Also, rather than being an archive of music, text, stories, videos and memories that shaped a developing, blossoming artist, this is now a list of slights, insults, hurtful moments that are dwelt upon and they are presented with sarcasm, bitterness, quiet anger and condescension. That I have to say this of an artist I respect breaks my heart.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shaista Latif August 10, 2017 at 12:52 pm

wow Lynn Slotkin! thank you for your review and for your continued support over the last two years with the work. It’s meant a lot to have you in the audience. I feel very grateful to be able to have the platform to explore what happens to a poor person of colour when they are asked to operate or be judged under the duress of identity politics and the violence it extends. I think with this work in particular, I really want to continue investigating how The Archivist is responded to by those who share similar experiences vs those who can only bear witness to the experiences of migration and racism. I am feeling very moved by pocs who are taking the time to connect with the show and also taking into account the responses from seasoned critics like yourself. All to say, I am thankful for the time you took to respond to the work. And I very thankful to be able to continue to evolve my practice by taking big risks and pushing against what is known and familiar. Wishing you well with the rest of SummerWorks! xo


2 Samer Hosn August 10, 2017 at 3:35 pm

I appreciate the detailed description of the show, but I think even if implicitly written out in the description, you truly do miss the intention of the show. Shaista in this piece and unassumingly in life did not want to create one identity. That’s the whole issue and foundation of her struggle. Her culture, situation, and the society that she is in, forced her to create one persona to serve everyone, because none of those entities could accept her as she was. The society she was raised in, and the culture that she came from, had a strict “list” of what they expected her to be, and she wasn’t many of those things, so she was forced to create a persona to serve all. That is where the humor comes from the “sarcasm, bitterness, quiet anger, and condescension” is most valuable. She never wanted to do those things, but she had to, so knowing that she had to adjust and morph, she did so, but her natural reaction to being forced into unnatural situations validated her “sarcasm, bitterness, quiet anger, and condescension.” It is possible that maybe you have never had to change your identity for every situation, so you do not know what reaction would manifest in the journey. It would have been very odd if she was forced into these disingenuous situations in life with a smile on her face and blind obedience. It also would have made for a very sterile and uninspiring work of art. I also do not understand the issue with her dwelling on moments of “slights, insults, and hurtful moments.” Was she expected to talk about the weather?
Your closing statements basically are sentiments that you are upset at how she is interpreting her feeling on a very dark time in her life, and I think the last thing someone should do who hasn’t experienced her journey is to tell her to not be bitter or angry about them. It just seems like another review of someone of color telling them to shut up and take it, or make it less “aggressive” as to not upset the “others.” Her journey is real, and her response was appropriate.
I am a first generation brown person, and it was like I’m watching a pattern that has been consistent throughout my life through her art, and if she had taken your suggestions it would have been foreign to me, so I guess you rather have to put yourself in our shoes or just watch things that pertain directly to you.