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Africana studies professor wins women’s studies award for book proposal

Eleanor Linafelt
Chief Copy Editor

Nicosia Shakes, a professor of Africana studies who finished her Ph.D. at Brown University this past May, won the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press (NWSA/UIP) First Book Prize this October. Her proposed book, “Gender, Race and Performance Space: Women’s Activism in Jamaican and South African Theatre,” is an expansion of her dissertation in which she argued that the work of women’s theatre groups, such as Sistren Theatre Collective in Jamaica and the Mothertongue Project in South Africa, is theorizing.

In her book, Shakes plans to also write about Olive Tree Theatre in South Africa and The Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project in Jamaica. “I’m putting these two theatre collectives, and in the book, these four theatre groups, in conversation with feminist scholars. I am showing how women’s theatre essentially is feminist theory,” Shakes said.

Though she draws from the writings of other women who have discussed theatre as theory, including Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Honor Ford-Smith and Sara Matchett, she deepens their work by applying it to what she calls a “transnational analysis of Jamaica and South Africa.”

Shakes is interested in the way in which women performers portray feminist thought in their plays. “One of the things that I want to do is talk about theatre aesthetics, and specifically theater aesthetics and activism among women of African descent and African women,” she said.

Shakes explained that much of the existing scholarship on theatre aesthetics is written by white people and particularly white men. “I have a concern about that so what I really want to show is that these women are innovators that we can learn from; they have particular reasons behind why they do the kind of theatre that they do,” Shakes said. The way she shows this in her work is through writing about the performances of theatre groups. “I don’t focus on analyzing play scripts, I analyze performances. My research is field research. I actually go and interview people and watch performances,” Shakes said.

Shakes’ work is also unique in that she focuses specifically on theatre groups rather than individual playwrights, something that is not common in theatre and performance theory. “As it is now, the scholarship on Africa and the Caribbean is very much about individual playwrights who have published plays,” she explained.

Shakes’ scholarship comes out of a personal interest in theatre, as she is also a playwright and has been involved in working in theatre. “A lot of this research came from the concern that I had with theatre and thinking that women are not getting the recognition that they should in theatre. I’ve also been troubled by gender stereotypes in theatre in the Caribbean, but also outside of the Caribbean,” she said.

Though women may not be getting the recognition they deserve in theatre now, the attention that the NWSA/UIP First Book Prize gives to Shakes’ work will perhaps contribute to changing that. “It has already called attention to my work, it has publicized my work among scholars,” Shakes said. For such a new professor, this is hugely significant. “My book will come out within the next two years and usually it takes many years for someone to publish a book after they finish a Ph.D., so my work will get the attention that it needs very, very early,” she said.

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