by Martha Sherman

If there’s still anyone who doubts that Black Lives Matter, or that Nasty Women are here to stay, send them for a visit to “Poor People’s TV Room.” Okwui Okpokwasili’s latest tour de force was a powerful mix of dance and story, pain and strength. Although much of Okpokwasili’s deeply personal work has been solo in the last few years, in “TV Room,” she is joined by three other dancers who partner with her, and pair in battling duets. It’s hard to decide who and how to watch, there’s so much here – but it’s worth the struggle.

The New York premiere of “ TV Room,” was the culmination of a two year residency at New York Live Arts, and was partially inspired by the Women’s War of 1929 in Nigeria, also known as “Women’s Egwu” – meaning dance, or performance. Okpokwasili chose many forms in this investigation and, as is her way, she dug for the personal, no matter how political.

Okpokwasili is a towering woman with physical energy that bubbles out of her in scary pops of muscle and limb. Her arms and torso twitch over legs that support her from any angle, at any height from the floor, flailing forward or backward. It’s not that she’s made of rubber, but that she bends her body to her own will, not gravity’s. The other dancers who supported her didn’t try to match that particular power (a wise choice), but were compelling in their stories, roles, and movement as well.

Okwui Okpokwasili in “Poor People’s TV Room.” Photo © Paul B Goode.

The set, by visual designer Peter Born (also credited as co-writer and director) was a haunting and disorienting canvas; the dance started before the audience was seated. Two angled, translucent plastic curtains cut the stage in misshapen halves, as if we were in the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Behind the plastic, a figure of blurry shape and color, Okpokwasili, throbbed her body along the angled horizontal. Katrina Reid was in front of the curtain, moving haltingly in the same direction, at almost the same pace, not in a parallel duet, but a partner nonetheless. They were inside and outside: two different women, but perhaps the same one.

In front of the pair, sitting in the dark on a shabby plastic chair, Thuli Demakude waited, not watching, but a witness nonetheless. Then a covered blob of a body crawled upstage; Nehemoyia Young unveiled herself to join Demakude, who began to tell a long mysterious story, loud but flat, about “when Oprah was a human being,” (“her body was the somatic weapon of a cool psychopath…”) She told her tale under the harsh light of a bulb overhead, and the accompanying score was also harsh, a series of eruptions and silences, clattering to push our attention from side to side on the stage, as it continued to do through both the stories and the dance.

There was another area of the stage; it was the most unsettling of all. Placed in the angles of the plastic walls, a large table was trapped. Part of the table was cut away and covered in a glass window; another cutaway was shaped like a door. Overhead, a mess of angles turned out to be a suspended chair shape and a fragment of the TV that titled the piece.

Nehemoyia Young, Thuli Dumakude in “Poor People’s TV Room.” Photo © Paul B Goode.

All were tangled overhead with a video camera, and Reid and Okpokwasili emerged from their curtain journeys to climb on the table as an overhead screen projected what the camera filmed. Reid slid onto a chair that was set on its back on the table; Okpokwasili “stood” on her back in the camera’s view, then she slowly slid onto Reid’s lap, tucked her head down, and began to suckle, as Reid’s face looked startled, but still.

As these two connected, in their way, Young and Dumakude continued on their separate paired path. Moving slowly around their half of the stage, they were also a tender mother and daughter, moving face to face, forehead to forehead. One tenderly touched the other’s cheek; their necks rolled down to framing each others’ shoulders.

All four were in motion, but attention shifted from side to side, story to story. Okpokwasili’s stories moved from quiet to stridently attacking (“this is my house and you must fill it.”) Every image and movement was a reminder that She Is Not Our Negro, either. Sometimes muttering to each other, the women’s stories were often barely discernable, like whispered memories, or therapy. The images we caught were painful – “we pulled her out from the wall; her chest was crushed” – but whether we could hear the words or not, the stories were all there, buried in deep layers of history –and offered with somatic weapons as well as verbal ones. Movement and words – including Okpokwasili’s haunting singing – wove and surprised at each turn.

The duets shifted, and eventually even the partners changed, which felt surprising, given the intimacy of the pairs. These were black women, supporting, challenging, and in community with one another – it mattered who was connected, but also didn’t. The shifting relationships evoked the Women’s Egwu – the political dance and performance – of women’s role in Nigeria, in America, in the world.

In the closing scene, after the plastic curtain had been torn down and the whole stage was lit in its harsh light and shadow, Reid and Young moved together. Like the earlier tender duet with Dumakude, they grazed each other’s cheeks; but as they rolled onto the floor, their legs and arms connected as well. Dumakude sat back in her chair, and rang a bell, as Okpokwasili lay beside her on the floor. The stage no longer trapped them, but their memories still did. At least, they had each other, black women of extraordinary strength and power.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Poor People’s TV Room” – Okwui Okpokwasili
New York Live Arts, New York, NY
April 22, 2017

Cover: Katrina Reid, Okwui Okpokwasili in “Poor People’s TV Room.” Photo © Paul B Goode.

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