The announcement of the production of a new play is always met with excitement and a bit of trepidation. The latter fear decreases depending on one’s knowledge of the work of the playwright and perhaps information about the play. It usually vanishes and is replaced by the excitement and pleasure of seeing a new play.
I met the announcement of the production of A Poem for Rabia by Nikki Shaffeeullah with the same hope and fear but a production by Tarragon Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre and Undercurrent Creations increased the excitement and decreased the second possible reaction.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast but it is sometimes crushed by reality and that was my reaction to Shaffeeullah’s play.
The author wants us to see three periods and phases of life in three parts of the world over two centuries. We begin in 1853 in Calcutta when Rabia (Adele Noronha) boards a ship headed for Guyana. I am not sure if does so voluntarily or if she is forced to board but we do know that she will become an indentured servant, which I take to mean a slave even though they are supposed to have been freed. This is not a cruise ship and the crossing takes several months during which Rabia suffers hunger and extreme discomfort. But she does meet Farooq (Anand Rajaram) on board and they manage to find diversions from the rigors of the voyage.
We see Guyana in 1953 when it is called British Guyana for obvious reasons. Guyana is seeking its independence and we meet Betty (Michelle Mohammed) who works in the office of the British High Commissioner. Betty gets involved in the politics of the era with Marsha (Virgilia Griffith).
In 2053 we are Ontario where Zahra (author Nikki Shaffeeullah) is a disillusioned Canadian. Prisons have been abolished, a very progressive step, without much of a hint of what we do with criminals.
I am not sure when confusion overtook me but it did and I had little idea of what was happening, who was what and in what century. Yes, there are differences in accent and dress but the going back and the intrigues involved left me looking at my watch. The author’s note of the amount of work she put in the play is noted with approval. The women involved tell the story of the author’s far past and, I suppose, her guess about the future. If you see the play follow Rabia, Betty and Zahra and listen to the poem that is recited.
The play has six actors who play ten characters. Virgilia Griffith plays Sheree and Marsha; Michelle Mohammed plays Betty and Anu and Jay Northcott plays Jem and Tom. I have only praise for them and if I could not follow what they were all about it is not their fault. The set by Sonja Rainey emphasizes water and given the voyages and the abundance of water in Guyana and Canada, it is appropriate. In the last scene the actors stand in an ankle-deep pool.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Clare Preuss co-direct the confusion. St. Bernard is also listed as a dramaturge and one wished she were far more aggressive to bring clarity to this ambitious play.
A Poem for Rabia by Nikki Shaffeeullah in a production by Tarragon Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre and Undercurrent Creations continues until November 12, 2023, at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com