Shariffa Ali, theater maker

Shariffa Ali wearing braids with beads.

Shariffa Ali, theater maker

When a two-week trip to the U.S. fell through, Ali created new spaces of possibility

By Ashia Reid

Shariffa Ali watched as thousands of girls swayed their arms and legs in rhythm to the music, their voices raised in a high-pitched, undulating song. She was 6 or 7 years old, and had come to watch the Reed Dance, an annual cultural celebration in Swaziland (now Eswatini), in which tens of thousands of girls dance, sing and place reeds in front of the Queen’s palace.

“Witnessing the immense spectacle and pageantry of the event planted in me a love of gathering, and a love for viewing performance,” said Ali, who today is a writer, director, creator and filmmaker, as well as a lecturer in theater at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

Ali’s early experiences in Eswatini set the foundation for a deep passion for the arts, and for finding ways to bring out creativity in others. Through her journey from the southern African country to Princeton, with stops in Pittsburgh, Washington Heights and New Haven, Ali has inspired people young and old. From college students to senior citizens, she has helped others look for meaning through embracing the arts and turning setbacks into opportunities.

Ali describes herself as “a planter of seeds, of proposals to humanity.”

“I believe that our art can reflect our world but also project a proposal to humanity on what our world could be one day,” Ali said during an interview in Princeton, reflecting words from one of her mentors in public theater. “It is in that space of possibility that I most creatively thrive.”

Born in Nairobi to Kenyan and Ethiopian parents, Ali spent her early life in Eswatini, and then moved with her family to South Africa. There, she faced bullying from other high school students over skin that was darker than that of her South African classmates. “Colonialism and white supremacy culture have infected the minds of young people, and as a result we don’t equate ourselves with being beautiful and celebrated,” she said, recalling that experience.

The bullying pushed her to move to a high school focused on academics and the arts, and she found herself drawn to the school’s theater program. Inspired to become an actor, Ali applied to the University of Cape Town’s prestigious theater and performance program. When she received her acceptance letter, however, she found that she’d been placed not in the acting program, but in a program that trains people to become “theater makers,” which she said encompassed everything from directing to marketing and producing.

Although disappointed at first, she enrolled in the program and soon found she was exactly where she belonged. “I didn’t choose theater,” she said with a laugh. “Theater chose me, and I accepted the invitation.”

While in college, Ali met an exchange student from the U.S. who invited her to come, upon her graduation, to Pittsburgh for two weeks to co-create a theater piece called Still, which was about a young Black man born into an unwelcoming world.

When she stepped off the plane in the United States, however, her friend had bad news. The theater where the program was to be held was closing due to financial struggles.

Rather than boarding the next plane home, the 22-year-old was determined to find a way to stay in the U.S. She convinced her mother to give her a few weeks to experience life in the U.S. before heading home. “My ego did not allow me to return home without doing something,” she remembers, smiling. She headed to New Rochelle, a town just north of New York City, where an aunt lived. She slept on the couch, as the weeks turned into months.

While staying with her aunt, a new friend invited Ali to watch a reading of a play. Ali, seated at a large table, turned to her right and met a man who she thought moved with the grace of a gazelle and, it turned out, was Gentry George, a dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, founded by the iconic choreographer and activist.

Ali asked George if he would be interested in collaborating with her in continuing the production of Still. He agreed, and for the next several weeks, Ali, her newfound friend and a handful of others met regularly, first in Washington Heights and then in Brooklyn, to develop the piece. They rehearsed on rooftops, at the YMCA, at the nearby sports center, anywhere they could find a quiet space. Finally, they were ready to put on the performance, for which they charged $10 per person admission. “We each made 50 dollars, which was huge since we’d built it from the ground up,” she said.

Having convinced her worried mother that she could make it in her newly adopted country on her own, Ali found an internship at New York City’s Public Theater, one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit theaters and a center for community performances, including New York’s free Shakespeare plays in Central Park. Ali’s internship led to a permanent position as a public works coordinator, helping to introduce theater and creative works across New York’s five boroughs. “We were teaching theater classes, voice classes, movement, dancing,” she said. “We were involved in a giant summer pageant that featured 200 people.”

During her fourth year at the Public Theater, Ali got the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to direct a production at Yale University of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

Described as intense and revelatory, the play explores what happens when a group of actors confronts the genocide of the Herero people of southern Africa. Working days at the Public Theater and commuting to Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, to rehearse with students meant a grueling schedule. Ali woke up at 6 a.m., took the 7 a.m. train to New York City where she spent the day at the Public Theater, and then took a two-hour train ride to New Haven so she could arrive for rehearsals that stretched until 11:30 at night.

“Four hours a day were spent on the train, but it enabled me to say yes, I am capable,” she said. “It proved to me that maybe there is a space for me as a creative person here in the U.S.”

One of the people who heard about the performance was Ugonna Nwabueze, a Princeton University student. When Ali and Nwabueze met, the two connected immediately.

When it came time for Nwabueze to propose her senior thesis project, she chose to produce and act in a play called Eclipsed about five Liberian women who confront civil war with resilience, resistance and hope.

Nwabueze felt that the play’s sensitive topic required a director with experience living in Africa, and Ali was at the top of her list. Jane Cox, professor of the practice in the Program in Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and director of the program, was one of Nwabueze’s advisers and led the committee that approved Ali’s appointment as a guest director at Princeton in 2017.

“I’ll never forget the first meeting that I had with Shariffa,” Cox said. “I just felt like this person is in charge and this person is going to take care of things. This person is wise. This was really wonderful for that project because the piece is about people who are surviving war and turmoil, and for Ali to be able to bring that sort of energy to the room with the students was really helpful in dealing with really traumatic material.”

Elena Araoz, senior lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts, praised Ali’s ability to create an exciting piece of theater based on the singular talents of who is in the rehearsal room rather than trying to fit people into preexisting expectations.

“I appreciated that she was asking, Who is in the room with us, who are all of our collaborators, students, professionals and colleagues, and how we are going to make something that comes from the best of what we have to offer?” Araoz said.

Since arriving at Princeton to direct Eclipsed, Ali has directed numerous productions including the original musical We Were Everywhere, developed by Ali, Avi Amon and Joanna Evans with Princeton students during a theater course in 2019, and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. She has produced several new works written by Princeton seniors in the theater and music theater programs, and she teaches on topics ranging from introductory art making to South African protest theater.

Ali also expanded her work to include film writing and directing with a 13-minute Sundance Film Festival short called You Go Girl! The film is about a young Black woman who travels to a desolate part of Oregon where she confronts challenging terrain inside herself and in her surroundings.

“This film began as a love letter to my mom — all her passion, quirks and resilience,” Ali wrote in the film’s description. “Throughout the pandemic, it has morphed into therapy. Black women are fierce. We care for each other deeply. We belong everywhere.”

Although only 31, Ali draws on substantial life experiences when advising students who want to succeed in the arts. One of her main pieces of advice is not to wait.

“Do not wait for an institution or individual to give you an opportunity, but rather make theater with whatever you have, wherever you have it,” Ali said. “Understand that you have plenty of opportunities based on the people that you already know, and the friends that you have met. Create constantly, because that’s the way you get noticed.”

Above all, she tells young people to follow their inner compass, just as she did when, nine years ago, she chose to stay in the U.S. despite the cancellation of her first big opportunity. “We live in a world that has groomed us to ignore our instincts, to say yes when we really mean no, to act against our best interests,” Ali said. “You have to make space for the inner voice to be heard.”