Post-Colonial Theatre Across the Commonwealth

In school we were taught that the colonial period ended with the independence of the Commonwealth countries: India, Pakistan, New Zealand and Nigeria, among others. The last half of the 20th century was characterized by the growing pains of countries coping with sudden “liberation” from colonial oversight. It can be argued that we’re still grappling with this legacy in the 21st century.

We will explore how playwrights indigenous to some Commonwealth countries challenged the colonial norms that constrain(ed) their cultures. Together we’ll read and discuss plays from Nigeria, Jamaica, India, New Zealand and Canada. As we compare the world captured in plays from the later 20th century with our world today, we’ll consider how colonialism can still be said to dominate world cultures. You can opt to begin the course by experiencing postcolonial performances at the 2020 Talking Stick Festival.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Compare how Indigenous playwrights from five different Commonwealth countries have represented their relationship to colonial forces—post independence
  • Consider common structures and thematic motifs in post-colonial theatre
  • Compare our current status as a post-colonial country to other post-colonial countries

Learning methods

You will learn through in-class discussion and readings. Please read the play and other material provided before the class we discuss it. Be prepared to ask questions and voice your ideas. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


The Talking Stick Festival, hosted by Full Circle: First Nations Performance, has featured Indigenous artists from across Canada for almost 20 years. The dates of the festival are February 18-29. We will plan to go to at least one event as a class once we have the lineup of events. People can also sign up to be volunteers at the festival as a way to see some great shows.

Week 1: The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway (Canada, 1986)

The Rez Sisters was the first play by an Indigenous writer to make it to mainstream theatres across Canada. The seven sisters in this play (mirroring Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs) are obsessed with bingo as a way to realize their dreams by winning the big jackpot. The sometimes frenetic and lyrical action of the play is juxtaposed with heart-rending monologues as the women travel by van to ‘The Biggest Bingo in the World’ in Toronto.

Week 2: Once Upon Four Robbers by Femi Osofisan (Nigeria, 1978)

Femi Osofisan's play brings a community to life as it struggles with social inequities, factions and corruption. The marketplace is the centre for the action of the play and the Storyteller directs the action. Song and dance make this play highly entertaining while the stakes are life and death. The play ends with the audience deciding whether the robbers will be punished or set free.

Week 3: QPH by Sistren Theatre Collective (Jamaica, 1981)

Based on a fire that destroyed a seniors housing complex, burning to death most of the residents, QPH treats the inequities between men and women and the plight of the aging through flashbacks telling the stories of some of the residents. The play is structured by the Etu ritual, combining Christian, African and Caribbean religious ceremony. Many of the songs are in Jamaican patois.

Week 4: Nga Pou Wahine by Briar Grace Smith (New Zealand, 1993)

In this coming-of-age story, an Indigenous teenager struggles to find out who she is, exploring the personal and cultural memory of her family members and heritage. The play is performed in the Marae, the community house which is the place of community rituals and gatherings. A central question of the play is how learning and celebrating one's culture and heritage can ground one to succeed in the contemporary world.

Week 5: Harvest by Majula Padmanabhan (India, 1997)

This wickedly funny and satirical play based on the global trade in human organs is set in a recognizable future where family members are alienated and destroyed by the forces of consumer greed.  Padmanabhan's first career is as a cartoonist and visual symbols are important signifiers in this Orwellian play. There is a horrible sense that "this can't be happening" but it really is.

Week 6: Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses (Canada, 1991)

Almighty Voice is based on the manhunt for a young Cree man who killed a cow in the Saskatchewan territory. In Moses's retelling of this history, we see it unfold through the eyes of White Girl, Almighty Voice's young wife. Act One tells the story leading up to the military's slaughter of her husband; Act Two is a minstrel show acted by the same actors in white face, complete with song and dance and comic routines—a competition between White Girl as Interlocutor and the Ghost of Almighty Voice.

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

The following book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

  • Postcolonial Plays edited by Helen Gilbert

Additional reading material will be provided in a course pack on the first day of class.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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