Nicosia Shakes on Black Women’s Activist Theater

Oct 4, 2023

In episode 156 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews scholar and artist Nicosia Shakes, whose creative and scholarly work celebrates the intertwining of political activism and performance across the African diaspora. 

Nicosia’s play Afiba and Her Daughters, which offers an intergenerational narrative of Jamaican herstory, premiered at the Rites and Reason Theatre in Providence.

Nicosia’s new book Women’s Activist Theatre in Jamaica and South Africa: Gender, Race, and Performance Space analyzes the work of four contemporary women-led theater groups and projects with a focus on how their activist productions take on gender injustice, racism, gang and state violence, and economic inequality.

In their conversation, Nicosia and Cathy chat about Nicosia’s familial journey into community theater and why this kind of performance is such a powerful activist tool.

She also shares the complexities of doing a transnational feminist, multisited ethnography across two continents and why a methodology of co-performative witnessing is so crucial for engaged theater research.

Finally, they close out the episode with how Nicosia imagines otherwise for the future of Black and African diasporic artistic productions and the worlds they build on and off the stage.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Nicosia Shakes on Black Women’s Activist Theater.” Imagine Otherwise. October 4, 2023. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 26:32.

In this episode

  • Community theater as a tool for social change
  • Collaboration in the research and theater-making process
  • Jamaican and South African historical similarities and differences
  • Black feminist futures of performance and theater
Cover of Women’s Activist Theatre in Jamaica and South Africa, with a Black femme actor sitting on stage

About Nicosia Shakes

Nicosia Shakes is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Merced.

She specializes in African Diasporic theatre, performance, popular culture, gender, sexuality, and activism.

Her book Women’s Activist Theatre in Jamaica and South Africa: Gender, Race, and Performance Space (University of Illinois Press, 2023) analyzes the work of four contemporary women-led theatre groups and projects with a focus on how their productions make critical interventions in the activisms against gender injustice, racism, gang and state violence, and economic inequalities. It is the winner of the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize.

Nicosia’s publications appear in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The Black Scholar, the C.L.R. James Journal, and the Jamaica Journal.

Alongside her scholarship, she has acted in, directed, written, and coordinated numerous productions, including her full-length play, Afiba and Her Daughters (2016).

She holds a PhD in Africana studies from Brown University.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

[00:00:12] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach, and today I have on the show scholar and artist Nicosia Shakes, whose creative and scholarly work celebrates the intertwining of political activism and performance across the African diaspora.

[00:00:26] You might be familiar with her play, Afiba and Her Daughters, which offers an intergenerational narrative of Jamaican herstory.

[00:00:34] Nicosia’s new book, Women’s Activist Theater in Jamaica and South Africa: Gender, Race, and Performance Space, analyzes the work of four contemporary women-led theater groups and projects, each with a focus on how their activist productions take on gender injustice, racism, gang and state violence, and economic inequality.

[00:00:55] In our conversation, Nicosia and I chat about her familial journey into community theater and why this kind of performance is such a powerful activist tool. She also shares the complexities of doing a transnational feminist, multisited ethnography across two continents and why a methodology of co-performative witnessing is so crucial for engaged theater research.

[00:01:19] Finally, we close out the episode with how Nicosia imagines otherwise for the future of Black and African diasporic artistic productions and the worlds that they build on and off the stage.

[00:01:32] Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:01:35] Nicosia Shakes: Thank you for having me.

[00:01:37] Cathy Hannabach: So, you note in this book that this was a very deeply personal project for you, continuing a family legacy of community theater. And I’m curious, what was your journey into studying the activist potential of women’s theater and performance?

[00:01:53] Nicosia Shakes: I think my journey started when I was about six or seven years old, actually. I saw a play that was written, produced, directed, and starring my mother, Elaine Shakes. And that was the first play I remember seeing. It was certainly the first play I can describe.

[00:02:16] It had different stories, but the one I remember was a story about a teenage girl who got pregnant and was mistreated by her child’s father and her community. My mother actually played the girl. I think that was the first time I thought about gender and especially about women and sexuality and gender discrimination.

[00:02:42] It was also the first time that I started to think about acting and writing and directing as art forms.

[00:02:54] The play was a part of a project that my mother was involved in as a teacher to educate communities about safe sexual practices, which was part of an initiative involving the Jamaica Family Planning Board. This was the 1980s when there was actually a great boom in this kind of theater in Jamaica and other parts of the world, I think.

[00:03:19] She taught at the local vocational training center, a trade school, where my father, Edward Shakes, was the principal. I remember that the play was held in the lunchroom of the training center. This was in the community I grew up in, which is Seaford Town, a rural community in western Jamaica.

[00:03:42] And of course, influenced by my mother and other people who did community-based theater, I became interested in drama and theater. One of my sisters also had that interest, but I was the one who went on to continue to do it in adulthood.

[00:04:02] So, it started with Elaine Shakes’s play and that’s how the interest started. Then I went on to high school and university, and it was in university that I started to do theater as a profession, to become involved in theater as a profession.

[00:04:24] This was the University of the West Indies. I was president of the Drama Society. And then when I graduated, I acted with a professional group called the University Players, which was also based at the University of the West Indies.

[00:04:39] Most of the projects I was involved in, even in high school, were nonprofits or entailed some kind of social commentary or they were part of a larger project to address a social problem.

[00:04:54] And even outside of theater, I did work that focused on race, work that was centered on Black people’s lives, centered on Africa and so on.

[00:05:05] I worked for about eight years, a little over eight years, at Liberty Hall, an institution that was dedicated to the work of Marcus Garvey, the famous Black leader. I was the researcher at Liberty Hall. That was my full time job after I left university. And this was when I was doing part-time theater work.

[00:05:29] So it made sense once I started grad school in the US that I would focus on theater and specifically theater aimed at social change. I also had an interest in the intersections of race and gender in Black women’s lives.

[00:05:48] There is, still is, a shortage of scholarship that examines the work of Black theater artists, especially their activist work and their group work and the methods that they have invented. So, I wanted to join the scholars who were examining how Black women’s activism operates in the theater industry or in the art of theater more broadly.

[00:06:13] Cathy Hannabach: This book joins a growing body of multisited, transnational ethnographies that put multiple geographic locations in conversation with one another to tease out similarities, to tease out differences, and to draw out broader patterns. How did you decide to focus on Jamaica and South Africa in particular? And what were some of the major themes that you found about how those two theater scenes relate to each other?

[00:06:40] Nicosia Shakes: I wanted, from the beginning, to have a transnational focus. I was doing my PhD in Africana studies at Brown University and working with scholars who always emphasized and still emphasize the transnational. My advisor was Keisha-Khan Perry, who was, who is, continues to be very invested in how we think about Black women’s activism across different spaces and times.

[00:07:13] So it started with me not necessarily knowing which countries I wanted to focus on or which groups, but with an intention to look at work across different parts of the African diaspora.

[00:07:32] It started with a focus on Sistren Theatre Collective in Jamaica. Sistren Theatre Collective is one of the most well-known women’s theater collectives in the world, and while I was doing theater in Jamaica prior to moving to the US, I knew about Sistren. The people who I worked with in theater in Jamaica knew about Sistren, had studied Sistren’s methods, had worked with Sistren.

[00:08:01] So, Sistren Theatre Collective, since I was a little girl, actually, has always been part of how I think about the political aspect of theater and using theater for social change. So, I went to Sistren. That was the model that I had for a Black women-led, women’s theater collective.

[00:08:25] But I also wanted to find another and at the time I didn’t know much about women’s theater collectives, I had just started to study this topic. And it was really by coincidence that I found out about the Mother Tongue Project.

[00:08:40] I knew I wanted to look at a theater collective on the African continent, and it just so happened that I was attending the Brown University International Association of Research Institutes, BIARI, which was an annual summer conference. And this was in Providence, Rhode Island.

[00:09:02] So I went to a presentation by Sara Matchett and Nicola Cloete from the Mother Tongue Project in Cape Town, and I was just so struck by how similar they were to Sistren. And I went and introduced myself after the presentation and decided that I would look into getting to South Africa so I could do research on Mother Tongue.

[00:09:27] And then from there, the research grew to include other groups and projects in Jamaica and South Africa, specifically Olive Tree Theatre and the work of Ntshieng Mokgoro, and the Letters from the Dead project, which is a transnational Jamaican performance project headed by Honor Ford-Smith.

[00:09:47] I look at how the groups are working to confront racism, patriarchy, gang and state violence, and other systems in their countries. And an interesting, a very important part of their work is that they tie a commitment to gender justice and racial justice to an antiviolent commitment and an anticolonial commitment.

[00:10:14] And in this way, their work teaches us a lot about the societies in which they operate. Of course, Jamaica and South Africa are Black majority countries, both have different histories of colonization, slavery, modern day imperialism, and social inequities that are racially defined.

[00:10:37] So, what you find in the work of these groups is an awareness of how these histories affect people in these countries today, as well as the current issues that they have. And there are, of course, differences that stem from differences in the societies. So, I’ve told people that I’m not making a claim that the work of these groups is so similar that we can just make assumptions about the two societies, similar assumptions. There are differences, there are differences in how white supremacy affects us, in how patriarchy affects us, etc.

[00:11:21] So an example of this difference with is with regard to the history of racism in these two countries. In South Africa, there tends to be a lot of focus on apartheid, the system of racial segregation that ended in the 1990s. And in Jamaica, we talk a lot about transatlantic slavery and British colonialism.

[00:11:48] The common thread there, of course, among artists is that there is a conscious critique of Eurocentrism in theater and seeing a focus on European theater methods and white theater methods as part of that process of white supremacy. So, deconstructing the notion that what white theater artists produce should be seen as superior or should be seen as the standard.

[00:12:22] So there’s a critique of Eurocentrism and a lot of focus on the innovations of the Black majority population. In the case of South Africa and Mother Tongue, a lot of focus as well is on South Asian-descended South Africans. So that’s antiracist, anticolonial politics that gets put into how they devise their methods. Of course, they also converse with international theater artists, so there are different influences.

[00:12:57] One of the methods that you find among African diasporic theater artists, and especially Black women theater artists, is the use of African-based rituals, African-based religious and cosmological rituals, in their work, where they combine spirituality and cosmology with theater and with their commentaries on gender and sexuality.

[00:13:28] So looking at these two countries gives you a very rich insight into the ways in which different systems of oppression work in two different African diasporic spaces.

[00:13:46] And I just want to end by mentioning two of the texts that had an impact on how I think transnationally.

[00:13:53] Kanika Batra’s Feminist Visions and Queer Futures in Postcolonial Drama and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones’s Theatrical Jazz. Their work has a similar transnational focus and with very in-depth analyses. And they are two of the scholars who I join in this transnational focus.

[00:14:15] Cathy Hannabach: In this book, you introduce a methodology that you call co-performative witnessing, and through that methodology, you have participated in some of the projects that you analyze in this book. What are some of the insights that that type of co-performance enabled for you?

[00:14:33] Nicosia Shakes: Well, I use the term co-performative witnessing and the method of co-performative witnessing as opposed to the more commonly used participant observation.

[00:14:46] I learned of co-performative witnessing by reading the really, really insightful work of Dwight Conquergood and the work of D. Soyini Madison. Simply put, co-performative witnessing emphasizes and encourages the sharing of ideas, the multiple roles a researcher might play, the collaboration and networking that happen while doing ethnographic research, and specifically, how you are building relationships in research.

[00:15:24] Sometimes that relationship involves you learning or you being a teacher, and so, creating something together. So, with that in mind, I fully embraced the fact that I too am a theater artist, and so I had a lot of sympathy for the individuals and groups whose work I feature in this book because I could identify with their activities, including the struggles they were going through, with some of the struggles they were going through.

[00:16:02] I was the collaborator for one of the performances, a play called A Vigil for Roxie, produced by the Letters from the Dead Project and written by Carol Lawes, Eugene Williams, Honor Ford-Smith, and Amba Chevannes.

[00:16:16] I learned a great deal from participating in the Letters from the Dead project. I actually went on to act in one of the performances.

[00:16:26] I also became involved in the activism to introduce a Termination of Pregnancy Act in Jamaica. This was a direct result of my research into how Sistren and the Hannah Town Cultural Group, a community group, use theater to advocate to change Jamaica’s laws against abortion, and I’m still part of the activism to get rid of Jamaica’s restrictive laws against abortion.

[00:16:56] So this was an example of me becoming an activist in a project that was a part of the work of the group that I was studying.

[00:17:09] I also attended the writing workshop held at the Olive Tree Women’s Theatre Festival, which is one of the events I analyzed. And this was actually a really intense learning experience for me because it was the first time I was participating in theater in Africa, participating in theater outside of the Americas. I actually learned a great deal at this festival and the workshop influenced a play I wrote later on called Afiba and Her Daughters, which premiered in 2016.

[00:17:46] The major insight from this approach of using co-performative witnessing is that research is so much more than a process of intense studying and then intense writing and intense searching for a publisher.

[00:18:05] I think most contemporary ethnographers would agree. Especially when you are studying activists, it can be a process through which you build on your own activism. There are some who argue that the actual process of writing is activism. It’s also a process in which you build on your own art, in my case, and a process in which you construct relationships that can last a lifetime, really.

[00:18:36] Cathy Hannabach: So much about this book is about collaboration, about collectively producing an embodied event or series of events that are intimately tied to specific communities and geographies. I’m curious how that emphasis on collective production, on making things together, shaped the way that you approached the research, the writing, and the publishing process for the book.

[00:19:02] Nicosia Shakes: Yes, many of the artists featured in the book use collective or collaborative creation where more than one person or more than two persons create a play, create a production. There are different types of collaborations which are focused on group creation, and I elaborate a bit on this in the book.

[00:19:27] In terms of how this influenced the research process, it certainly made it longer and broader than it would have been if I was studying the work of just individual playwrights. Because each project, most of the projects, not all of them, were created by multiple people, in order to get good insights into that performance, I had to interview all of the creators or strive to interview all of the creators.

[00:20:08] So I had more research participants than if I was studying individual playwrights, and the ethnographic process was very, very long. It lasted almost a decade. Some would argue it’s not that long, but it has felt like all of my, a lot of my, adult life in this research process. Actually, it started two years before a decade. So probably 12 years long and very, very intense.

[00:20:41] I traveled to Jamaica and South Africa a lot, and to different parts of Jamaica and different parts of South Africa, interviewing different people. But it wasn’t just the creators of the performances that I interviewed because the process of collaboration and collaborative creation also, in many cases, involves the community. So, I interviewed people from the communities in which the individuals and groups work, as well as activists who were part of the activist projects in which the performances were created.

[00:21:24] There was also a lot of consultation during the writing process, especially with respect to how I interpreted elements of the performances and how I use quotes from my interviews.

[00:21:38] This was influenced by my witnessing of how the groups used constant consultation to create their projects. I began to see myself as part of the large network of people who are committed to advancing the kind of work that these groups do. So, it’s made me very meticulous. It made me double check over and over and over again, which was very tiring. And it also made me try as much as possible to involve the people featured in my research in the writing process.

[00:22:24] Cathy Hannabach: So, this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at that why behind all of this work that you do. So, I will ask you this enormous question: In the spirit of imagining otherwise, what is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:22:43] Nicosia Shakes: I love this question so much.

[00:22:44] Cathy Hannabach: Me too.

[00:22:47] Nicosia Shakes: In the context of this research, I am working toward a world in which Black and African people’s artistic productions are more widely studied and regarded as essential to how we analyze and think about freedom and democracy. There’s much in our arts to learn from and not just in theater.

[00:23:12] I wish for a world in which women’s theater collectives, and in general, people who produce nonprofit theater or socially conscious theater didn’t have to struggle so much economically. Most of the artists and individuals featured in the book have serious economic struggles getting their work produced and this was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, this has an impact on the kind of work they can do and the communities they serve, which are primarily poor Black communities.

[00:23:51] And following on that, more broadly, I want a world in which, the major systems of oppression have been dismantled. The systems I’m referring to are racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and all of the related systems of sexism, homophobia, anti-Black racism, classism, and so on.

[00:24:15] I want a world in which capitalism isn’t the dominant economic system. I want a world in which African, Caribbean, Latin American, Pacific Asian countries and their Indigenous populations, a world in which the global majority are politically and economically equal to the wealthy white majority countries of Europe and North America.

[00:24:45] And finally, I want a future in which we’ve repaired the damages of the past and are working toward social justice in every respect. And I think at its best, that is what activist theater strives for.

[00:25:06] Cathy Hannabach: I agree. Thank you so much for being here, putting this amazing collaborative book out into the world, and for sharing all of these ways that you and your collaborators imagine otherwise.

[00:25:19] Nicosia Shakes: Thank you very much for having me.

[00:25:25] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me and Nicosia for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. Nicosia’s new book, Women’s Activist Theatre in Jamaica and South Africa, is out now from the University of Illinois Press, and you can learn more about it and Nicosia’s other projects in the episode show notes on our website at

[00:25:44] The show notes also include a transcript and teaching guide for this episode with related books, interviews, and resources.

[00:25:52] Imagine Otherwise episodes make for great syllabus editions, and our teaching guides are designed to help students and researchers explore the vibrant worlds of progressive, interdisciplinary scholarship.

[00:26:04] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:26:09] You can find Ideas on Fire and Imagine Otherwise on Instagram at @ideasonfirephd, as well as on Mastodon, Bluesky, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and all the other socials.

[00:26:21] You can also subscribe to the show on our website,, as well as on your favorite podcast app.

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