“Todos somos Africa.” Reflections on my trip to Colombia, June 2019

 In June 2016, in Santiago, Chile I performed in a theatre installation called Song for the Beloved, curated by Honor Ford-Smith, Anique J. Jordan, Kara Springer and Camille Turner. Song examined and performed how communities affected by violence remember and forget their loved ones and envision healing. As part of the curators’ aim to involve the audience/visitors, all who attended were invited to write on cards their ideas of social justice and on stones the names of loved ones who had died violently. I was unprepared for the outpouring of emotion as people wept openly while recounting instances of violence that had personally affected them and their communities. From the original violence of European genocide against indigenous people; African enslavement; the killings of Black and Brown people by state agents; gang violence that continues to ravage poor communities; femicide; and anti-LGBT violence; to the Pinochet Regime’s seventeen-year-long violation of human rights in Chile, visitors narrated how violence committed against one person, community or generation reverberates across space and time. At the same time, there were soul-stirring ideas about reparative justice and the need for public healing written on the various memorial objects the visitors left.

The memorial stone that left the most lasting impression on me held the simple sentence, “Todos somos Africa”/ “We are all Africa.” It was the writer’s way of affirming how integral Africanness is to Latin American identity and by extension, the making of the modern Americas. These words resonated with me as I left another Latin American country, Colombia, three years later in June 2019.

I went to Colombia to participate in the annual Caribbean Studies Association Conference in Santa Marta. Afterwards, I spent three days with friends from the Caribbean experiencing Cartagena de Indias, Colombia’s Blackest mainland city, which was at one point the main Spanish port in the world for trafficking enslaved Africans.

At CSA, I chaired a panel on Delia and Manuel Zapata Olivella, the Afro-Colombian siblings whose research and literary and performance art were significant in valorizing Afro-Colombian identity during the twentieth century. The scholars who presented, Ana Cecilia Calle (University of Texas, Austin); Juan Suárez Ontaneda (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Viviana Quintero Márquez (Vanderbilt University) have drawn extensively on the Zapata Olivella archive at Vanderbilt University for which Márquez serves as curator, as well as other sources. This panel, and my visit to Colombia in general, brought to mind the archival work that has been, and is yet to be done regarding the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans. Despite their strong presence in this region for centuries they continue to struggle against being marginalized within the frames of mestizaje and/or whiteness employed by many countries.

Whitening policies implemented across the Americas[1], efforts at Black erasure and expulsion, exclusion from national censuses, and ongoing lethal violence against poor Black communities have all worked to place Afro-Latin Americans in a precarious position with regard to their racial-ethnic and regional identities. In reaction to this marginalization, Afrodescendientes in Latin America have a long history of resistance to anti-Black racism and against Euro/White American imperialism. This resistance includes their creation of national movements like the Movimento Negro of Brazil and The Proceso de Comunidades Negras in Colombia; as well as membership in global organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was at its height in the 1920s to 1930s. The activism of Afro-Latin Americans was vital in the creation of the United Nations International Year for People of African Descent in 2011 and now the UN International Decade for People of African Descent (2015 to 2024).

There is a growing bibliography on the subject of Blackness in Latin America, including the PBS series, Black in Latin America (2011), produced by Henry Louis Gates Jnr. and a considerable collection of scholarship that focuses on the region as a whole and individual countries.[2] These are situated within an ongoing imperative to examine Africanness/Blackness and anti-Black racism in Latin America and the Caribbean, and globally (including in Black majority countries like my own, Jamaica). The trip to Colombia created a tangible, affective experience of Black agency that I had not yet undergone in a mainland Latin American country. These manifestations of Black agency include the creation of distinct communities like La Boquilla, Cartagena, a coastal community founded by Caribbean immigrants; San Andrés, a Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea; and San Basilio de Palenque, the first town established by formerly enslaved Africans in the Americas. 

The common threads in the creation of these communities are the history of African enslavement and ongoing cycles of migration and settlement within the Americas. These African Diasporic roots and routes are most clearly present in cultural expression.

As I often tell my students, Blackness is not just about pain and our discussions around Black cultures must not solely focus on trauma. We must also engage with beauty and enjoyment.

Nowhere were these conscious expressions of Black aesthetics more discernible than in the stunning public art in Santa Marta and Cartagena. Most of these images were of Black women of different shapes, ages, skin colors, hair textures and occupations — an obvious concerted effort to celebrate Blackness and Black womanhood in particular. (My to-research list must include finding out some more about this artistic movement).

Afro-Colombian personhood was also highlighted in one particularly provocative exhibit at the Museo de La Inquisición in Cartagena. In a room by itself, playing on a reel was a short film recounting the three trials of Paula de Eguiluz,[3] who is perhaps the most well-known African-descended person  brought before the Inquisition in Cartagena under accusations of witchcraft in the 17th century. The experience of Tituba, the first person to be accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, U.S. also falls within this history. Formerly enslaved in Barbados and brought to Massachusetts, Tituba is usually left out of the popular and filmic conceptions of the Salem witch trials. However, her story, like de Eguiluz’s and those of others targeted by the Inquisition —the vast majority of whom were women— is integral to recognizing how deeply race and gender overlapped in the prejudices European Christian leaders harbored about philosophies, healing practices and ways of life that were beyond their dictatorial reach.

Watching de Eguiluz, memorialized in anime form, was for me one of the highlights of the visit to Cartagena. I especially appreciated the filmmakers’ decision to have her recount the experience in the first-person.

In the last frame of the film, from her prison cell she seems to reach across time to tell the viewer that her existence did not cease once her body died.  She lives on in the descendants of people like her in Colombia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. They are the products of the transregional exchanges and cultural, genetic and philosophical crossings between the Americas and Africa.

 The idea of Blackness rooted in African origins, notwithstanding intra-racial conflicts and hierarchies, forms of capitulation to white dominance, and ethno-national separations, resonates within these geographic, emotive, and political spaces. “Todos somos Africa.”

Photos: Mural in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Memorial stone from Song for the Beloved, Chile, 2016. Statue in Magdalena on the way to Cartagena (sculptor’s name not included/not visible), 2019. Colombian tour company operator, Alex Rocha with his son following tour of Palenque, 2019. A performance from youths trained by the Tambores del Cabildo, La Boquilla, 2019. Teenagers from Palenque in performance (supported by Corporación Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque). The author with friends from the Caribbean at the entrance to Palenque, 2019. The author at one of the murals in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Mural in Santa Marta, 2019. Mural in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Exhibition based on Paula de Eguiluz, Palacio de la Inquisición, Cartagena, 2019 (The words read, “What you can be sure about is that I did not pass through the flames of the fire”). Mural in Palenque, 2019 |All Photos Copyright Nicosia Shakes.

[1] These whitening policies were in no way exclusive to Spanish and Portuguese-colonized territories, but were found throughout the Americas.

[2] See, Renée Alexander Craft, When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in Twentieth-Century Panama, Ohio State University, 2015; Jafari S. Allen, Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba. Duke University Press, 2011; Karen Juanita Carrillo, The View from Chocó: The Afro-Colombian past, their lives in the present, and their hopes for the future, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010; Alexander de la Fuente and George Andrews eds., Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2018; Jennifer Goett, Black Autonomy: Race, Gender, and Afro-Nicaraguan Activism, Stanford University Press, 2016; Jameela Medina, The Afro-Latin Diaspora: Awakening Ancestral Memory, Avoiding Cultural Amnesia, Authorhouse, 2004; Arlene Torres et al, Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean, Indiana University Press, 2018; Keisha-Khan Perry, Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Viviana Quintero Márquez, “Soldiers, Militias, and Tamboreros Cabildantes in Bocachica and Cartagena de Indias, 1741–1973.” The Latin Americanist 63 No. 1 (2019): 89-106. Christen Smith, Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil, University of Illinois Press, 2016.

[3] See Kathryn Joy McKnight, “Performing double-edged stories: the three trials of Paula de Eguiluz.” Colonial Latin American Review 25 no. 2 (2016): 154-174. De Eguiluz was born in Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), and enslaved in Puerto Rico and Cuba before she was brought to Colombia to face the Inquisition.

A Praise Song for Donna

There are rare people who possess such boundless energy that it is impossible for them to really die. Donna MacFarlane has passed on, but she lives on in the imprint she made on the lives of everyone who worked closely with her and knew her well.  I remember the day that small staff of Liberty Hall moved into an almost empty building that the Friends of Liberty Hall, Institute of Jamaica and committed Garveyites and government members had worked tirelessly to restore. There we were, the baton in our hands figuring out how to fill this place and fulfill the dream of a living monument to our great Ancestor, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

What Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey is today – that work that we are so immensely proud of, would not have been achieved without the vision of this woman. Her vision was bigger than all of us – bigger than her. She was the definition of tenacity and vigor – Black pride and self-confidence personified. Royalty.


The last time I saw Donna in person, she and her husband, Claude came to visit me in Rhode Island in April 2017.  She had gotten a break from her treatment and they decided to take a short holiday in New England. I had spent the previous 8 months in physical isolation from my Jamaican family, writing the dissertation and applying for jobs; so I was almost completely drained of energy and in that gloomy anticlimactic state following getting the PhD.  I was beyond ecstatic to see them! To congratulate me they gave me a gift of handcrafted ceramic plates and a hand painted congratulations card. Inside, Donna wrote an African proverb, “Reach up and grab all that you wish.” Grabbing all she wished meant that Donna worked and played hard. She loved fun and excitement, especially music and dancing.

Nicosia at Donna's memorial

At the celebration of life ceremony on Feb. 3, Kingston, Jamaica

The last time I spoke to her was via a WhatsApp video call made by Shani Roper, LH’s Acting Director, a week before she passed (I am forever grateful I got the chance to do so). Of all things — and this is soooo Donna — the only question she had for me was if I had gone to the Shaggy and Friends 2018 show, which she had insisted I couldn’t miss. I told her I had gotten a front row seat by watching the live stream in my bed instead of going. She smiled and nodded. We said our goodbyes without saying “goodbye” after just a minute of conversation that she had reached deep into her stores of energy to participated in. That was exactly a week before she passed.

This tension between her passing and her very real presence in my/our consciousness is the root of the loss I feel. It is a struggle to reconcile the physical end with her immortal presence through inspiration; an inspiration so deep that even when I disagreed with her, I was in awe of her.

At the 2011 Sankofa symposium at Liberty Hall, Donna read a poem by well-known Black American artist, writer and educator, Margaret Burroughs who co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. The title of the poem is, “What Will Your Legacy Be?” Borroughs wrote and Donna recited,

… Stop for a moment and listen to me and answer this question if you can.

What will your legacy be?

What deeds have you done in your lifetime which will be left for you to be remembered by?

Will it be just a gray decaying tombstone standing alone in a cemetery or will it be, as it should be, some act, some service or some deed that will insure that you will be remembered on and into the eternity of life’s game?

I ask you. What will your legacy be?

Will it be the fact that you helped somebody along the way, during the time while you were here on earth?

What will your legacy be? …

Donna spoke the words and she knew her own answer to that question. Her legacy is her family – the biological ones and the ones she gathered through her tremendous intelligence, ability for love, vibrancy and service. Her legacy is the work that she left for us to complete. Her legacy is us – the people who she taught, learned from, debated with, loved and inspired.

And now she is among the Ancestors. What a powerful Ancestor to have! We miss you, but waak gud Nana.


Dr. Donna MacFarlane O.D., pan-African intellectual and activist, museologist, lecturer, author, mother, friend, mentor, sister etc. etc. etc. was Director/Curator of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey from 2003 to 2018.  She received the Jamaica Order of Distinction in October 2017 for her service to the nation. This article is an extended version of my contribution to Liberty Hall’s tribute at her celebration of life on February 3, 2018.


The Self-Identity touch screen exhibition in the newly renovated Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum. (Donna dramatizes Nikki’s story)


A section of the newly designed Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum in 2017

*The Adinkra symbol at the top is ese ne tekrema, “the teeth and the tongue”, the symbol of friendship and interdependence.

Images: MMG Multimedia Museum, 2017 (c) N. Shakes; Donna MacFarlane, circa 2016 courtesy of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey;  N. Shakes at Donna MacFarlane’s celebration of life, 2018; inside the newly renovated Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum, 2017 (c) N. Shakes


Book Manuscript: Gender, Race and Performance Space: Women’s Activism in Jamaican and South African Theatre. Under contract with University of Illinois Press. ***Winner of the 2017 National Women’s Studies/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize.

About the Book

Africana women’s experiences are characterized by a milieu of differences and intersections – of time, of space, of place, of physicality; distinguished by race, sexuality, gender, class and cartographic boundaries. These are affected by the experiences of the middle passage, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and modern spatial trans/figurations such as gentrification and the ghettoization of Black communities throughout the world.

Considering this history and present, how do Africana women use performance to define and redefine the gendered bounds of geographic space ?  And

How is this defining and redefining situated in imaginations of democracy and freedom  that center racial, gender, sexual and economic justice?

In response to these two questions Shakes’ book makes two central assertions. First, that theatre exists as an essential theoretical and practical means through which Africana women have forged feminisms and womanism.  Second, an examination of public and site-specific women’s theatre allows us to comprehend the different ways that Africana women are creating pedagogies that frame democracy beyond its electoral-specific conceptualization to encapsulate gender, sexual, racial and economic justice.

The book focuses on the work of four groups, projects and organizations. These are, Sistren Theatre Collective and the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project in Jamaica, and The Mothertongue Project and Olive Tree Theatre Company in South Africa. Shakes locates them within nationally-specific contexts of Jamaican and South African theatre as well as the global context of Africana women’s performance-based pedagogy.  Through public and site-specific performances these groups disrupt the problematic ways that women’s bodies are racially and sexually interpreted as they move within the public sphere. Concurrently, by focusing on marginalized Black communities they transgress the geographic manifestations of gender-based, racial and economic inequalities.

Watch her speak about her research, with reference to Sistren Theatre Collective, Jamaica and The Mothertongue Project, South Africa here.
hannah-town-picNicosia Shakes with members of the Hannah Town Cultural Group, creators and performers of “A Slice of Reality”in Hannah Town, Kingston, Jamaica, June 2015.

Creative Portfolio


I create, perform, coordinate and theorize about performances that comment on social issues, especially those connected to race, gender, sexuality, and class. My main influences are theatre artists in Africa and the African Diaspora who dedicate their careers to developing innovative techniques while learning from rich theatrical traditions found across the globe. I am in the early stages of developing a career in playwriting that draws on two decades of experience in theatre as well as the transnational networks I continue to form with a diverse set of theatre/performance artists.



Rites and Reason Theatre, Providence RI, May 25 to 28, 2016. World Premiere.

Afiba and Her Daughters is my first full length play. It had its beginnings as a treatment for a screenplay that I submitted as part of my application to the MA Program in Scriptwriting at Goldsmith College, University of London in 2009. I was accepted by the Program, but could not pursue it because of financial reasons. However, four years later in 2013, I began developing the story into a play in Elmo Terry Morgan’s Research to Performance Method Playwriting Class at Brown University. Afiba and Her Daughters is an intergenerational play that represents how the women in a Jamaican family negotiate racial, gender and class oppression in the country. Afiba is an enslaved woman who suffers dearly after performing a single act of liberation in 1818. The protagonist, Dana Carnegie, Afiba’s descendant, belongs to the group of feminist intellectuals that came to voice in the 1970s in Jamaica. She serves as the playwright’s surrogate as she writes and tries to publish her family’s story with Afiba at the centre. From slavery to colonialism, to the early post-colonial era, to Jamaica’s experiment with democratic socialism in the 1970s, the play offers snapshots as well as details about the context in which these women try to live fulfilling lives. Rites and Reason Theatre produced the play under the direction of John Emigh, Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Performance Studies, Brown University. It opened on African Liberation Day, May 25, 2016 and had a successful four-day run that closed on May 28, 2016. Afiba and Her Daughters features original songs, and original music by the playwright and Providence-based, musician, Lon E. Plynton.

amy-and-miss-watson dscn1954dana-and-jonathon dont-have-no-wings

Photos: Top left to bottom right: Angela Nash Wade (Amy Spencer) and Becky Bass (Miss Watson), Shenyse Leanna Harris (Afiba/Christine Carnegie), Sylvia Ann-Soares (Besi) and Cleveish Bogle (Cubah), Angela Lynsey Ford (Dana Carnegie) and Ezekiel Olukoya (Jonathon Griffiths) in scenes from Afiba and Her Daughters. Photos by Nicosia Shakes.

PREMIERE RUN: May 25 to 28, 2016, Rites and Reason Theatre, 155 Angell Street, Providence RI 02912. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST (Abridged): Director: John Emigh, Producer: Karen Allen Baxter, Dramaturg: Elmo Terry Morgan, Production Assistant: Kathy Moyer, Technical Director: Alonzo T. Jones, Musical Director: Lon E. Plynton, Costume Design: Lisa Batt-Parente. Actors: Becky Bass,  Cleveish Bogle, Angela Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Warren Harding, Shenyse Harris, Angela Nash, Ezekiel Olukoya, Tom Paolino, Sylvia-Ann Soares. BAND: The Mystic Jammers.
Watch a video clip here

TWO STORIES – A Play in One Act

Tallawah Drama Festival, November 1999.

Two Stories, a one-act play with three characters is about a conversation that accidentally happens between two women connected to the same man. One is married to the man, the other is engaged in an illicit relationship with him. In a series of flashbacks the women talk about their experiences, from the beginning of each relationship to the problems that eventually result. It was written as an entry to the Tallawah Drama Festival, a national theatre festival held at the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies, Mona. The play received the awards for Best New Script and Best Actress.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 18, 1999, Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer, Director and Costume and Set Designer: Nicosia Shakes, Actors: Tonni-Ann Brodber, Shelly-Ann Wittock and Shaun Thomas.  AWARDS: Best New Script, Best Actress (Tonni-Ann Brodber), High Commendation in Directing (Nicosia Shakes).

LOST SON – A Play in One Act

Tallawah Drama Festival, November 1999.

The late 1990s was an unfortunate turning point in Jamaica’s history of gang-related violence. Murders were at a record high and many Jamaicans, including myself, felt that the tone of the violence was becoming more and more indiscriminate. People who may have previously been considered “off limits” as possible victims, including babies and women, were being targeted mostly for retaliation. Lost Son tells the tragic story of a young couple from one of Jamaica’s volatile inner-city communities, who become enmeshed in the violence. The main protagonists are Stacey, a newly pregnant young woman, Tony her partner and Paula, Stacey’s inquisitive and supportive friend. It was as an entry to the Tallawah Drama Festival. I received High Commendation for directing it.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 19, 1999, Tallawah Drama Festival, PSCCA. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer and Costume and Set Designer: Nicosia Shakes, Director: Andrea Grant. Actors: Nicosia Shakes, Martin Thame and Dionne Thompson.

BLACK PEARL – A Performance Poem

Tallawah Drama Festival 2000.

Part dub, and part pentametric, this poem is a meditation on anti-Black racism and Diasporic Africans’ connection to the continent.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 19, 2000, Tallawah Drama Festival, PSCCA. PERFORMER: Clive Forrester. AWARD: Best Poem.



An Interactive Exhibition and Performance by The Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, The Garvey Great Hall, Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Kingston, Jamaica, May 2015.

Song for the Beloved: Memory and Renewal at the Margins of Justice was an interactive exhibition and performance mounted in Kingston, Jamaica in 2015. It was one in the series of performances from the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, initiated by Honor Ford-Smith who is also Principal Researcher. Ford-Smith is a Jamaican scholar, actor, playwright and former Artistic Director of Sistren Theatre Collective. She teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. The Project began in 2007 as a Jamaican-centered transnational exploration of the ways in which people who reside in volatile urban communities remember and forget the lives lost as a result of violence. It blends visual arts, public performances, theatre, multimedia and art installations/exhibitions, and has been enacted in Kingston, Jamaica; Toronto, Canada; Bogotá, Colombia; New York and New Jersey, United States. The exhibition/performance consisted of memorial tables influenced by Jamaican Revival, images of Jamaican persons who died violently, and a multimedia slide show of memorial street art in urban Jamaica. The exhibition opened with a staged reading of the monodrama, A Vigil for Roxie, co-created based on ethnographic research, by Honor Ford-Smith, Amba Chevannes, Carol Lawes, the actor and Eugene Williams, the director. This exhibition/performance was dedicated to the lives lost during the 2010 West Kingston Incursion in which seventy people were killed (49 unarmed), mainly by the Jamaican police and army. May 25, 2015 was the fifth anniversary of the incursion. The exhibition was curated by Honor Ford-Smith and Anique Jordan and designed by Honor Ford-Smith, Anique Jordan and Kara Springer.

 audience single-bottletable-and-image2   carol-lawes

Photos, top left to bottom right: the audience, two sections of the interactive exhibition and Carol Lawes reading A Vigil for Roxie. Photos by Nicosia Shakes.

PRODUCTION RUN: May 25 to 28, 2015. PRODUCTION TEAM: Principal Researcher – Honor Ford-Smith, Curators – Honor Ford-Smith and Anique Jordan, Exhibition Design – Honor Ford-Smith, Anique Jordan, Kara Springer. CREATORS OF A Vigil for Roxie: Amba Chevannes, Carol Lawes, Honor Ford-Smith, Eugene Williams; Actor: Carol Lawes; Director: Eugene Williams.



Performed at SANKOFA: A Symposium on Slavery and its Impact on Contemporary Jamaica, organized by Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey at The Institute of Jamaica auditorium, 12 East Street, Kingston, Jamaica. February, 2004.

SANKOFA: Slavery and its Impact on Contemporary Jamaica was the first in an annual symposium that I organized while working as Research Officer at Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, a cultural and educational institution dedicated to Marcus Garvey, the important Jamaican Pan-African philosopher and leader. As part of the symposium, I collated and directed a performance of five slave narratives from Jamaica, Bermuda, Cuba and The United States. The narratives were woven throughout the symposium and performed at different points in the program with the readers/ actors approaching from various sections of the auditorium. I directed the narratives as well as performed an excerpt from The History of Mary Prince, a woman enslaved in Bermuda during the early 19th century.

jasmine-everett-reads-the-slave-narrative-of-akeiso-renamed  abbebe-sankofa nicosia-shakes-reads-an-excerpt-from-the-slave-narrative-ofPhotos, left to right: Jasmine Everett reading the narrative of Akeiso [sic] enslaved in Jamaica, 1700s, Abbebe Payne reading the narrative of James Fisher, U.S.A. 1800s and Nicosia Shakes reading the History of Mary Prince, enslaved in Bermuda in the 1700s to 1800s. Photo Copyright Liberty Hall, 2004.

PRODUCTION: February 27, 2004. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer – Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Director/Costume Designer – Nicosia Shakes. Performers: Jasmine Everett, Cleon “Ras Ja Ja” Golding, Donna MacFarlane, Abbebe Payne, Nicosia Shakes, Wayne Modest.



Performance at the Tenth Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile, July, 2016

Song for the Beloved is the most recent performance in the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, which is directed by Honor Ford-Smith who is also Principal Researcher. Song for the Beloved was an interactive performance installation done as part of Encuentro eXcéntrico: “Cuerpos, soberanías y disidencias“, the Tenth Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics in Santiago, Chile. Influenced by Jamaican Revival, an Afro-Christian religion and philosophy, the installation consisted of a large memorial table bearing stones with names of persons who had died violently in Jamaica and other countries in the Americas, a multimedia slideshow of performances of the MUVAP project in Jamaica and Canada, and three tables featuring one performer that interacted in different ways with visitors/participants. I was positioned at the Justice Table where I invited visitors to talk about loved ones they had lost to violence and their vision of reparations. The other performers were Camille Turner and Honor Ford-Smith. The performance was created by Ford-Smith, media performance artist, Camille Turner and visual artists, Kara Springer and Anique Jordan. It was dedicated to Black Lives Matter.

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Photos Left to right: Nicosia Shakes at the Justice Table, visitors/participants at the central memorial table, “Song for the Beloved”. Photos by Kara Springer, copyright Nicosia Shakes.

Read the extended version of Nicosia  Shakes’ Creative Portfolio.

Staging Jamaican Herstory with “Afiba and Her Daughters”


The past, the present and the future are not separate. They bleed into each other. This is the philosophy put forward by my new play, Afiba and her Daughters. It is based on powerful African wisdom, like the Adinkra principle of Sankofa; and the acknowledgement that the ancestors are ever present in our day to day realities.

In 2003, I had an idea to write a screenplay about a Jamaican university student who comes of age in the 1960s, using the 1968 Walter Rodney protests as the catalytic event. For years this idea marinated but never manifested. Then in 2009, I successfully applied to the MA in Scriptwriting program at Goldsmiths College, University of London with a proposal to turn this idea into a screenplay that would be called, Brother Wally, centering Walter Rodney as the protagonist’s inspiration. Julian Henriques, director of the scriptwriting program saw much potential in it. But I never got to go to Goldsmiths. It was too expensive and I was not eligible for a scholarship, because I already had a Master’s degree, and UK rules were strict on providing funding for foreign nationals who already had equivalent degrees. However, three years later this screenplay became a theatre play after I began studying at Brown University. I made two major changes : First, my male protagonist became female. Not only was I wary about writing from a male perspective, I was also uncomfortable about reproducing yet again the narrative of the radical Black man, with supporting woman characters. Secondly, the story became more complex, and grew to centre on Black Jamaican women’s struggles and triumphs. I wrote act one in Elmo Terry Morgan’s Research to Performance Method class in fall 2012, and act two was written with director, John Emigh’s encouragement in 2015.

Shenyse Harris as the title character, Afiba. Photo by John Emigh

The play is an inter-generational story about a loving but troubled family. It spans the period of slavery leading up to Emancipation, the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the turbulent late ’70s on the brink of the end to democratic socialism. It has been and will continue to be a challenging but rewarding process: trying to manage the exhausting tasks of writing a dissertation, while developing a very complex play (which includes three original songs penned by me) separately; writing about Black women; writing about trauma while trying to have the characters also find joy in their lives; writing a Jamaican play in the United States; being guided by research but harnessing as much artistic freedom as possible; and trying not to self-critique to the extent that I become unable to create. [1]

Difficult but cathartic”

The process has been difficult but cathartic.  I am participating again in theatre, one of the great loves of my life, after too many years of only doing non-theatrical work. And I have the support of an institution dedicated to plays that do not fit the norms within mainstream commercial theatre, with an amazing talented director, cast and crew.  The play has allowed me to sort through my own complex understandings of Jamaica’s legacies of slavery and colonialism, and more contemporary oppressive structures. It has also strengthened my admiration for the intelligence, strength and beauty of Jamaican people, people of African descent in general, and all of the rebel women who continue to guide us.

From left: Lynsey Ford, Shenyse Harris and Angela Nash in rehearsal. Photo by N. Shakes

Afiba and her Daughters opens on African Liberation Day, Wednesday May 25, 2016 and closes on Saturday, May 28, 2016. Performances will be on May 25, 26 and 27 at 7:00 p.m. and May 28 at 11:00 a.m. Discussions will follow the May 27 and May 28 performances. It is being directed by John Emigh and produced by Rites and Reason Theatre, Africana Studies, Brown University, with original music and two original songs by Lon E. Plynton and featuring Becky Bass and the Mystic Jammers.

Music rehearsal with Lon Plynton (on piano), From left: Tom Paolino, Becky Bass, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Sylvia-Ann Soares and Shenyse Harris. Photo by N. Shakes.

 “It takes a Village”

It takes a village to make a play, and Afiba and her Daughters has a huge transnational village.

My profound gratitude belongs first with The Creator and The Ancestors, who inspired the story. Thank you to the hardworking creative team at Rites and Reason: Karen Allen-Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Elmo Terry Morgan and Kathy Moyer, as well as the Department of Africana Studies, headed by Prof. Brian Meeks. And thanks to the director John Emigh, who is  deeply committed to the project. The following list reflects persons with whom I worked closely on developing this play and on my general research. There are/will be myriad others who work with the crew, and will be acknowledged in the play’s program and later writings by me:

Development of the Script/Advice on Craft: John Emigh, Honor Ford-Smith,  Kashka Hemans, Elmo Terry-Morgan.

Production and Technical Support: Rites and Reason Team: Karen Allen Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Kathy Moyer.

The Cast and Crew: Becky Bass, Lisa Batt-Parente, Cleveish Bogle, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Warren Harding, Shenyse Harris, Angela Nash, Ezekiel Olukoya, Tom Paolino, Lon Plynton, Sylvia-Ann Soares, Emily Varden.

Research (Jamaica and the United States): Tony Bogues, Carolyn Cooper, Anani Dzidyienyo, Warren Harding, Taitu Heron, Rupert Lewis, Brian Meeks, Abbebe Payne, Keisha-Khan Perry (diss. advisor), Shani Roper-Edwards,  Edward Shakes, Elaine Shakes, Maziki Thame.

Participants in developmental readings:Arielle Brown, Alexis Green, Dennis Kozee, Ashley Mitchell, David Samuel and Kyle Vincent Terry.

Props  sourced in Jamaica: Rion Smith, sculptor;  Phillip Supersad, drummer/sculptor, drum maker, the Institute of Jamaica.

Thank you as well to all of the family members, old friends and new ones, who listened intently to me as I talked endlessly about this play and gave me advice: people like actor/playwright, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and my sister, Tracey Clarke.

Asé Ire, Love and Balance,


[This is a longer version of the playwright’s notes that will be published in the program for the play].

 The featured image at the beginning of this post is of a grave marker (from the period of slavery in Jamaica). It was reproduced by Jamaican sculptor, Rion Smith, from the artifact housed at the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston for this play. Photo by N. Shakes.
[1] Self-criticism is absolutely necessary. However, Black woman artists have to add to their own self-critical reflective process, intense external perceptions: of inadvertently re-enforcing stereotypes, of not being representative enough of the group, of not providing the audience with enough information, of not being “political” enough, of being too “political”. This makes the general process of creating art stressful for Black women as much as it has also been pleasurable, and  a necessary part of our self-expression and activism. For Black woman artists from developing countries working in developed countries, working-class Black woman artists, and Black queer woman artists, the process is even more difficult. This is one of the topics I explore in my dissertation.

The UWI’s Unacceptable Response to Reports of Gender-Based Violence

(This blog was published in The Daily Gleaner of February 11, 2015 under the title, “UWI Blind to Sexist Violence”)

I read with dismay the official response of the administration of the University of the West Indies to claims about gender-based violence at the Mona Campus, published as the Letter of the Day in the Saturday February 7, 2015 of the Daily Gleaner. I am dismayed, but not surprised that the UWI administration seems far more concerned with its reputation than with actually investigating and trying to engender (pun not intended) a proper conversation. Its defensive letter of response may partly stem from the sensational headlines accompanying the Sunday Gleaner article that prompted this recent controversy. (It is hyperbolically titled, “Halls of Horror”). But, the tone of the response is also characteristic of the University’s general approach over the decades to this issue. Taitu Heron’s 2013 study, “Whose Business is it? Violence against Women at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus,” is available online. She includes among her findings, information about the way in which the University administration reprimanded a student group that tried to have a proper conversation about the problem some years ago. Others can attest to this somewhat reactionary position of the University administration over the years. In her article, “Sexual Assault and UWI: Can We Talk?” Annie Paul gives numerous examples of members of the UWI administration reprimanding individuals and groups who have spoken publicly about gender-based violence there.


Regional headquarters of the UWI at Mona


UWI Mona main library

Additionally, I am disturbed by the rhetorical gymnastics employed in UWI’s response. I will only look at three of these problematic statements: Firstly, the response points out that the cases reported constitute “fewer than one per cent of students … over a five-year period.” This appears to reference Taitu Heron’s findings that 67 cases were reported between 2010-2012 to the office of security services. The UWI’s letter of response does not specify whether they found any other reports from campus security about gender-based violence since then. In my opinion, the number given by Heron is still a large one in such a small community.  It may or may not indicate a rampant problem, but considering that studies show that most people do not report gender-based violence, the figure is still shocking. Secondly, the response is careful to mention that “70 percent” of the students at the University are female. I guess this is supposed to lead us to conclude that a female majority means that women are disproportionately empowered and that gender violence could not possibly be a problem. Without going into a long lecture about how patriarchy operates, including the fact that women also participate in it, and that it relies mostly on power structures, and less on numbers, I will just simply state one thing: A particular gender’s demographic majority does not ipso facto equate to said gender’s empowerment. Thirdly, the response states, “the university is a microcosm of the wider society,” as a way of diverting any specific blame from the campus towards the country and region.  Since UWI has carefully made that observation, we can engage with it by asking the following question: Given that the wider society has a big problem with gender-based violence, wouldn’t the University as a microcosm of this society also have a big problem with it? Furthermore, in many ways there is a specific campus culture – particularly on halls of residence – that amplifies sexism within the wider society, including problematic notions of masculinity and femininity. There are certain initiation practices and traditions that are disturbingly sexist. A case in point is the infamous “panty tree”, which was decorated by men on one of the halls of residence.

Gender-based assault on university campuses is a global issue; where the UWI administration differs from many others is that it is yet to acknowledge the problem in a meaningful way that will lead to a transformation. There are many ways in which UWI could have responded publicly to this controversy in a manner that shows concern for students and that also seeks to defend its reputation. For example, the University could have begun the response by categorically condemning gender-based violence while at the same time questioning the labeling of its campus as a “haven” for sexual assailants; it could further investigate the matter and prepare a report that is sent to every student, staff and faculty member; it could display a willingness to critically re-examine measures in place; it could choose not to conflate gender violence under the generic rubrics of “campus security” and conflict management, but treat it as a unique offence in which survivors are usually shamed into silence. By implying that it is more concerned with its reputation than with the plight of violated students, the UWI administration compromised itself long ago as a safe avenue through which these students can report their experiences. How many students and staff members will now be willing to come forward and report cases, without feeling that they are destroying the UWI’s reputation? Finally, as a past student of the UWI, I know of many cases of gender-based violence while I was there; including stalking, beating, sexual assault of women and anti-gay violence in different forms. I once had to report a case of stalking to the campus police. (I hope they are better trained to deal with this now than when I was a student, because I found them very insensitive at the time). Over the years, I have had conversations with students and staff members about this continuing problem. Whether you are the survivor of an assault, a witness, or someone who heard about an assault, we understand one thing: that the administration of the University of the West Indies does not like when people speak up about this, and you are likely to be reprimanded when you do. I left UWI as a student 13 years ago; I gained much from my time there and I feel a deep love and loyalty to that institution. For this reason, I am extremely disappointed that this problem continues, and that the critical conversation around it is yet to happen.