No Subtitles for Saxton Award

Student playwrights recognized

It was their own experience at Queen’s that pushed student playwrights Bushra Afreen, ArtSci ’17, and Nina Ricciarelli, ArtSci ’16, to write a piece depicting the daily experiences of being a minority in a predominantly white community.

Last month, Afreen and Ricciarelli were awarded the J.C.W Saxton Prize in Playwriting by the Dan School of Drama and Music, given annually to a student who has submitted an exceptional piece of playwriting.    

The play, entitled No Subtitles, takes a look at the lingual and cultural barriers between racial groups. The drama features two characters, Bengali-Canadian Brishti and white Canadian Beatrice, as they attempt to navigate the struggles of racial representation in drama. As Brishti tries to get her play, which is set in Bangladesh, onstage, Beatrice’s response is full of micro-aggressions and ignorance that may feel eerily familiar to the average Queen’s drama student.

In an email exchange with The Journal, Afreen and Ricciarelli, who are from Bangladesh and Brazil respectively, noted that it was based on a combination of both their experiences at Queen’s. They wrote the script in Professor John Lazarus’s playwriting class, using it as a vehicle to express how out-of-place they felt in campus theatre culture. 

“Nina, who is physically a white person, faced greater pressure to assimilate. Seeing her grow frustrated with the department was terribly saddening, especially since she was so, so, so excited to be part of Drama,” Afreen wrote. 

In her time at Queen’s, Riccarelli struggled with being “ridiculously white” while also trying to maintain a cultural identity, “especially when Queen’s is so blatantly white Canadian,” Afreen noted.

“I mean, I’m Latina and I look nothing like a stereotypical Latina. I have blonde hair and I’m super pale. I don’t look out of place at Queen’s, but I feel like I am,” Ricciarelli said. 

After sharing with each other their frustrating encounters within the Drama department, it became clear what they would write on: something that Afreen dubbed “white-cultural suffocation” — the lack of space for other cultures and realities despite surface-level promises of diversity and inclusion. The script was formed mainly through improv. 

The main conflict of the short play is Beatrice rejecting a Bengali song in Brishti’s production, saying that cultural diversity has to be “authentic but accessible” to its white, English-speaking audience. In the end, exasperated and disheartened, Brishti walks away from letting it be altered so much, stating, “I’ve gone through this thing before and it always ends up the same.”

Both Afreen and Ricciarelli were shocked when they found out they’d won the award. 

The play’s subject matter is particularly significant for the year the Drama department has had. It’s recognition comes at the end of a year in which Queen’s Vagabond’s production of Othello was cut after backlash over the casting of a white woman as the title character, traditionally played by a Black man.  

“I desperately want to believe that they are two completely separate situations but I’m a bit suspicious,” Riccarelli wrote regarding how her play interacts with this year’s events. “Regardless, I’m super stoked that our little passion project got noticed.” 

Afreen will be the first person of colour to receive the Saxton award, a fact she called “ridiculous”. Nonetheless, the warm reception of No Subtitles may hold promise for more diverse and socially-aware productions on the horizon.

“We should try to broaden our selections to include plays about other types of experiences,” Riccarelli concluded. “Canada is so diverse. We should honour that.”

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