by Lynn on October 27, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont. Playing until November 12, 2023

Written by Nikki Shaffeeullah

Co-director,  Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

Co-director, Clare Preuss

Set by Sonja Rainey

Costumes by Jawon Kang

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Composer and sound designer, David Mesiha

Cast: Virgilia Griffith

Michelle Mohammed

Adele Noronha

Jay Northcott

Anand Rajaram

Nikki Shaffeeullah

A very ambitious play about ancestors, where we come from the notion of home, migration, the creation of a new nation and the nefarious goings on that prevent that. Judicious editing is in order to clarify, simplify, hone and focus the play.

The Story. A Poem for Rabia is about honouring one’s ancestors, in this case the playwright Nikki Shaffeeullah’s ancestors who were from India. It’s about the creation of British Guyana where Nikki Shaffeeullah’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great, great grandparents were from and it’s about life and struggles in Toronto, where Shaffeeullah lives and thrives and works for a better future. The story is told through the experiences of her characters but for Shaffeeullah this complex story is very close to her heart if not experience.  

From the production information:

An epic journey across time, oceans, and tectonic shifts in political history. A Poem for Rabia weaves the stories of three queer women from the same bloodline: Zahra, a disillusioned activist in 2053, navigating a Canada that has just abolished prisons; Betty, in 1953 British Guiana, 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, abducted by colonial ‘recruiters’ and sent sailing from Calcutta to the Caribbean on an indentured labour ship.  

The Production and comment. Water factors heavily in the story—references to Lake Ontario being too deep to freeze; the ship sailing from Calcutta to the Caribbean.  So there is a section of Sonja Rainey’s set with a section of calm water, surrounded by curved planks of wood that could stand for a ship, different locations, sails on a boat etc.

The play evolves in three different places in three different time periods. Of the six actors, four play two parts in different time periods. Nikki Shaffeeullah plays Zahara, in 2053. She is an activist who wants to serve society to make it better. As the synopsis says, she is an activist who is disillusioned by Canada because it has just abolished prisons leaving many to fend for themselves, without social services.

Rabia (Adele Noronha) is an Indian domestic in 1853 who has been abducted and put on a boat from Calcutta to the Caribbean to be put into domestic service for at least 10 years and will then be free. When Rabia was in India her lover was a woman named Anu (Michelle Mohammed) who it seems was of a higher caste. Rabia was a poet and created a poem that Anu arranged to have published, but only Anu’s name was on the published work. While Rabia was concerned about this, she did not put up a fuss. Anu said that the words would always be Rabia’s. Over the course of the play the poem is recited often by different characters, including Zahra in 2053. So Zahra’s words have been passed down.

In the scenes in British Guyana, there is political intrigue going on in the Governor’s office. Marsha (Virgilia Griffith) is a watchful member of that office and knows something unsavory is going on. She asks Betty (Michelle Mohammed), a new member of the secretarial pool, to type some letters in a secret file to try and get the information out about what is going on. Betty and Marsha are found out, but it’s confusing if Betty actually did type the letters or not—she says not, but we see that she did. What is her point of lying to Marsha, one wonders.

There are also other characters played by actors in different time periods with different relationships to other characters. Keeping their relationships clear and how they factor into the story is a challenge. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Clare Preuss are the co-directors keeping the swirl of activity and action well-paced and smooth going.

The acting of the company is very good. Characters are differentiated by accents, nuance, body language and time. As Zahra, Nikki Shaffeeullah is saddened by the political goings on; she is compassionate and committed. As Rabia, Adele Noronha lives by her wits, humour and resourcefulness.  

Nikki Shaffeeullah worked on her play off and on for 10 years. There were workshops, dramaturgical suggestions, readings, explorations and development. The love and commitment to the play is obvious. Now I suggest it’s time for more rigorous cutting, editing, honing and clarifying the story, because with all these characters and the time periods and events and developments, the play is confusing. If a scene, a character or an event does no serve what the play is about, it should be cut. There is more clarity in the above synopsis of the play than in the 2 hours and 30 minutes running time of the play. Please refocus.

A Tarragon Theatre production in association with Nightwood Theatre and Undercurrent Creations presents:

Opened: Oct. 25, 2023.

I saw it on the opening.

Runs until November 12, 2023.

Running time, 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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