My name is Shariffa Ali. As a young child I would gaze in awe of my grandmother and the village elders of the rich fertile farmlands of Nandi Hills, Kenya as they spun stories of the great legends and fools of our tribe, and while I understood little of their tales and the language they spoke, Kalenjin, I was utterly consumed by the musicality of their voices with its sudden peaks and drops in volume, their bold majestic gestures and expressive faces dimly light by the coal fire that was set behind them. I did not know that in observing these stories a seed had been planted in my being-a love of storytelling; the very root of theater and performance. This seed would continue to grow and blossom in my years while being nurtured by my parent’s educators and others that I have encountered throughout my life.
In In May 2013, planning only for a short two week trip, I took a leap from South Africa to the city of Pittsburgh as a guest director commissioned by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. I have spent the years that followed in the USA working in the theater industry as theater maker & arts administrator, most notably at the Public Theater and The New Group in New York City. As an interdisciplinary artist, producer and arts administrator; my role is to serve as a creative leader in a collaborative artistic process. I commit to creating the optimum conditions for the development and or deepening of an artistic project. My leadership role is therefore fine tuned to the needs and constraints of each endeavor.
What do I do best?
I strive to create the perfect conditions for creativity to thrive, for human connection and artistic capacity building to soar. In addition to serving as the Community Coordinator for a renowned initiative at Public Theater called Public Works, I am a freelance director and producer of theater, film and more recently virtual reality (VR). I am recognized as an artist of extraordinary ability by the USCIS, I’m really proud that I have been identified with this marker of artistic distinction.
My superpower is my ability to connect with people through the use of humor, wit and deep listening. I’m committed to sharing the wealth of my experiences and learning about others who are present among us and those who have come before us - that’s probably why I enjoy working as an artist in academia. I’m happiest in the back row of a dark theater moments before a performance begins or at a large table breaking bread and making conversation with new people.
What makes me the best version of myself?
My ability to be durable and resilient while maintaining a sense of flexibility and malleability has enabled me to thrive particularly in challenging or uncertain times.
What are my aspirations?
Allowing myself to listen more deeply to my inner voice. The inner voice that tells me that I am powerful, highly capable and that anything I want for myself is within my reach. The voice that tells me I am my ancestors wildest dreams. Empowering others to listen to their own inner voices.
Harnessing the power of the performing arts and entertainment industry to create major change to developing world. In addition to leaning in to the capacity that the arts has as a means of income generation, allowing the arts to promote shifting paradigms around inclusivity and tolerance. I aspire to see how these ambitions can positively impact individuals and communities who have been historically disadvantaged particularly by mechanisms of colonialism and white supremacy.
My Biggest Success?
The decision to make the USA my home for the foreseeable future has been my biggest challenge and biggest success. It is here in the US that I have been afforded opportunities to grow personally, professionally, artistically and share much of my culture background and heritage with those who I encounter. It’s here in the US that I have faced many challenges where I have not had the same support structures as I would have at home. I have had to build new structures, make compromises and face difficulties.
My Most Challenging Moment?
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ― Audre Lorde
My Favorite People/Role Models?
CYNTHIA NIXON & CHRISTINE MARINONI my fairy god-mothers who have been a pillar of strength throughout my time in New York City.
STACEYANN CHIN- a brave bold artist and thought leader whose words have served as an anchor and compass.
My mother ROSE ALI, the first feminist I ever met who beat all odds to become a successful business development consultant, who encouraged me to pursue the arts.
My many proverbial “Aunties” and The countless sister-friends I have made all over the world who are basking in the light of their excellence, unafraid intelligent their success and happiness is contagious.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
· Paris, France
· Stonetown, Zanzibar
· The home and art studio of Wangechi Mutu, where I often am met with rich imaginative art, and a vibrant cluster of eclectic people.
· New Orleans, LA
My Favorite Products/Objects?
I own a rain stick from a production called “We are Proud to Present” by Jackie Sibblies Drury which I directed at the Yale Dramat in 2017. I love the organic sound it makes when I tilt it back and forth and the correlation that it has to my experience directing at Yale.
The framed poster from a production of “Eclipsed” by Danai Gurira that I directed at Princeton University in 2017 is a firm favorite. Not only is the poster beautiful but it was framed and given to me by a dear friend Ms. Alma Hueston who travelled a long way to support me by attending the production. She’s one of my guardian angels.
My Current Passions?
· The music of Cecile McLorin Salvant
· The art of Hank Willis Thomas and Kara Walker
I’m passionate about Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality as a form of entertainment and art making. Because this medium is immersive and a viewer steps into a whole new world when they have a VR or MR experience I am very interested in how this can be a tool to generate empathy. I am working on a project called unAfrican which is inspired by Kenyan mythology. This project seeks to unearth a historic myth regarding gender fluidity and queerness in ancient Kenya. It’s my hope that in engaging viewers in this way we can shift assumptions and prejudices around these issues.