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'A Poem for Rabia' by Nikki Shaffeeullah

Now onstage at Tarragon Theatre in the Extraspace

Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann. Pictured: Nikki Shaffeeullah

Joe Szekeres

“A world premiere production that speaks to the heart of women from three different time eras. I wish I could make a stronger connection with these ladies. The script sometimes becomes confusing when trying to follow three separate plots.”

The Director’s Programme Note begins with a quote by Octavia Butler: “All good things must begin.”

When I read in the program that Nikki Shaffeeullah’s ‘A Poem for Rabia’ was ten years in development, my first thought was that the storyline would be something good or perhaps very good.

Some moments are good in the production; however, there weren’t enough to sustain my interest in the three subplots intersecting with the main plot. That’s unfortunate. I couldn’t differentiate between inheritance and intergenerational connections between these subplots. Much information is given regarding these three plots, characterizations, and historical context, and I began to lose sight of the focus on inheritance and intergenerational connections.

Regrettably, by the end of the play, I couldn’t connect to any of the characters. Not one. Perhaps further editing is in due course for the script once again.

From what I could understand about the three plots - three queer women are from the same bloodline.
It is 2053 in Canada. Zahra (Nikki Shaffeeullah) is a disillusioned activist involved with abolishing prisons and many have been left to fend for themselves.

It is 1953 in British Guiana. Betty (Michelle Mohammed) is caught between her new secretarial job at the Governor’s office. Her co-worker is Marsha (Virgilia Griffith), and their supervisor is Ramesh (Anand Rajaram). A tense office workplace situation arises where Marsha is placed in a difficult position, and she asks Betty to follow through on something. The question remains if Betty will follow through on Marsha’s request.

It is 1853. Rabia (Adele Noronha) is an Indian domestic worker. She is abducted by colonial ‘recruiters’ and sent sailing from Calcutta to the Caribbean on an indentured labour ship. Rabia is a poet and has written a poem which her lover Anu (Mohammed) promises to have published. Anu is of a higher class than Rabia. When the poem is finally published, only Anu’s name appears.

Jawon Kang’s costume designs are vivid recreations of the three time periods. I was able to differentiate between the three historical settings. Sonja Rainey’s set design of the still water downstage caught my eye. The set pieces distinguished whether we were on board a ship looking out at the water or in other locations. The veiled curtains on stage left and right also help create locales.

It’s a lengthy running time - nearly two hours and thirty minutes. When I could focus and understand the plot, co-directors Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Clare Preuss kept the action moving naturally. Tension is nicely built into Betty’s story, especially when she tries to sneak something out of the office without Mr. Ramesh suspecting anything. Whether Betty is successful remains one of the story's highlights for me.
To be honest, Betty’s story is the strongest out of the three. But I could not make any other connection as to how her story pulls together the lives of Zahra and Rabia.

Final Comments: “A Poem for Rabia’ is one where I wished I could listen to a talkback with the actors after the show. I may have been further enlightened with feedback from the actors.

Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

‘A Poem for Rabia’ runs until November 12 at Tarragon Theatre in the Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, or call 416-531-1827

A Tarragon Theatre production in association with Nightwood Theatre and Undercurrent Creations present
‘A Poem for Rabia’ by Nikki Shaffeeullah

Co-directors Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Clare Preuss
Set Designer: Sonja Rainey
Costume Designer: Jawon Kang
Lighting Designer: Echo Zhou
Composer and Sound Designer: David Meslha
Stage Manager: Sandi Becker

Performers: Nikki Shaffeeullah, Virgilia Griffith, Michelle Mohammed, Adele Noronha, Jay Northcott, Anand Rajaram.

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