As of this writing, the writer, performer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili is entering the final phase of Poor People’s TV Room, the multidisciplinary (and multisensory) performance she is creating in closely-knit partnership with her collaborator Peter Born. Three years in the making, this month’s premiere also represents the culmination of Okpokwasili’s extraordinary residency at New York Live Arts as their 2015 – 17 Randjelovic/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist.
Conversing with Okpokwasili over a (very long) lunch on the Upper East Side in late February, I learn that she is fresh on the heels of performing in a reading of Ntozake Shange’s iconic work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (1975), directed by Anna Deavere Smith the night prior. Having first been exposed to this writing at the age of fifteen, Okpokwasili recalls just how seminal Shange’s choreopoem had been in the context of her own work as a performance-maker. With its stylized language and free-flowing, non-linear narrative, For Colored Girls put forth more questions than answers, rendering the work a malleable text to be shaped by any reader (or director) who encountered it. As a Nigerian-American teen growing up in the Bronx, Okpokwasili found Shange’s effortlessness in embodying the “brown girl experience” to be a revelation that still strikes a powerful chord within her own creations. “After last night, I was shivering and shimmering,” Okpokwasili says. “I feel it in my navel.”
For a moment, Okpokwasili’s ruminations on the transformative power of poetry transport me to a visceral experience of my own. Last June, I ventured out to Governor’s Island to witness an iteration of her current work, presented as part of the River To River Festival. Titled when I return who will receive me, the work was configured as a durational installation at Fort Jay. A fluid assemblage of research, discovered performance material, and “outtakes” from what will eventually become Poor People’s TV Room, the work invited audiences to roam freely through the cavernous rooms, some filled with meditative tableaus, others, such as the main entrance lobby, resounded with powerful incantations performed by Okpokwasili herself. It felt like the performers’ bodies were emanating words that had been soaked within their flesh for generations, as if I had entered a shrine, where stories, journeys, and memories commingled within an echo chamber of history. The effect was deeply affecting, with words blazed into my consciousness for a long time to come.
During our conversation, Okpokwasili connects the origin of this new work to the Bring Back Our Girls movement, a response to the April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a school in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists. Through a powerful use of memes, many local women (including the girls’ mothers) implored their government—and indeed, the world at large, even eliciting a response from Michelle Obama—to take more steps to find the missing girls. Finding it to be a powerful example of self-advocacy and agency of African women, Okpokwasili felt that the phenomenon belied the narrative of their weakness and victimhood. In turn, her exploration of Bring Back Our Girls prompted her to look into the legacy of protest movements and their embodied practices throughout Nigerian history. Okpokwasili explains,
For example, you would see older women baring their breasts to shame those who would look at them. Or, women building collective chants and singing them around the private residence of a particular official. It’s as if a group of women [were to sit] on the White House lawn singing about Russians, or […] “show me your taxes.”
And indeed, she found a way to embody these notions in the very first iteration of the piece in June 2014 in the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. A solo performance by Okpokwasili, the piece consisted of a fifty-minute song she created as an attempt to mimic the aforementioned protest practices. This song (as do many elements of Okpokwasili’s research) will resurface in this month’s premiere, but will be sung sotto voce, almost inaudibly, by one of the performers.
Okpokwasili’s work houses a desire to unearth histories that are buried in the flesh. In her own words:
The historical knowledge, the spiritual knowledge […] what is that inarticulable shadow—can you touch it? Hopefully the piece that we are making operates in this space of trying to excavate something hidden to the surface. Maybe out of my own concerns about invisibility around blackness or darkness, and making presence—making something more visible. I am dealing with black women being seen, shaping how they are being seen, but also making sure that what is seen is three- and four-dimensional. I am interested in seeing how we can make spaces where certain spirits can rise that you didn’t know about, that were hidden. They might be connected to forgotten people, places, cultures, a forgotten language.
In creating this new work, Okpokwasili has also considered her own complicated relationship with Nigeria, being an Igbo woman growing up in the Bronx. She recalls visiting her homeland and feeling like an alien, but also feeling marginalized stateside. “I start thinking [about] all the different ways of making things visible,” she says, “always looking for signs that I feel mark my connection to these traditions, languages, cultures.” For Okpokwasili, an obvious and immediate connection was the Nollywood film industry, which began humbly in 1990s and eventually became a highly profitable market. Specifically, Okpokwasili was fascinated with Nollywood as a point of intersection of multiple cultures, both Western and African. Often trafficking in mythology, the industry’s framework rose out of the fatigue of looking at the Western tropes. “As is the case with my work, Nollywood is not looking for purity,” Okpokwasili adds, “It is about finding a strange perspective.”
Speaking about influences on her current work, Okpokwasili references the writings of Amos Tutuola, a Nigerian novelist whose work was inspired by Yoruba folk tales, and specifically a narrative structure that’s not rooted in the Western form of story projection. Okpokwasili appreciates the immediacy of being thrust into a condition, with no support to explain frequently surreal events. This device is reflective of the oral traditions handed down from generation to generation among her ancestry. Of translating the form into a theatrical context, Okpokwasili comments:
You posit certain things that shouldn’t be, but you don’t explain too much. You make some kind of a tunnel for people to come into a particular condition. I’m interested in operating in a psychic space—I find that to be the most fertile place if we are going to have a live exchange. There is a kind of conjuring taking place, for the performers as well. How can you spin that world, lose yourself in it, and also make a vortex that draws people in?
With this month’s premiere at New York Live Arts fast approaching, I ask Okpokwasili to reflect on the impact that two years in the Randjelovic/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist program had on the creation of Poor People’s TV Room. “It felt like a springboard,” she says, “that you could just jump on and go.” The prestigious residency drew in additional commissioning partners, and granted Okpokwasili and her partner, Peter Born, the freedom to immerse themselves in the research and to work on the piece itself.
As she is preparing to complete the journey of creating Poor People’s TV Room, Okpokwasili revisits the work’s thematic terrain:
I deal a lot with memory and the unreliability of it […] I look for latent cultural memories, or latent bodies in me that I can find a way to surface through certain practices. I love the idea of trying to recall things—most of my pieces are attempts to recall, attempts not to be lost.
The New York premiere of Poor People’s TV Room will run April 19 – 22 and April 26 – 29 at New York Live Arts (219 West 19th Street, New York).