Thursday, September 13, 2012

Skin in the game: Nina, Nora, Miriam

Stir Builds Over Actress to Portray Nina Simone
by Tanzina Vega, The New York Times, September 12, 2012

Should Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone? No. And that's neither a knock on the Dominican-Puerto Rican Saldana for not being African-American nor an assessment of her acting abilities. Simone's dark, dark skin and broad features--clearly not acceptable to Hollywood's image-makers and marketers even today--were essential to her experience in the world as a Black woman and to her politics. Casting a light-skinned actress with conventionally pretty features to portray Nina Simone would be as absurd as trying to turn a gay business associate into a heterosexual lover. Oh, wait....

Dance artist Nora Chipaumire, as I'm sure you've been hearing and reading about everywhere, has had another giant of Black music and activism much on her mind--the late Miriam Makeba. But don't expect Pata Pata, or anything remotely like it, from Miriam, Chipaumire's raw and provocative "solo for two people," set to music composed by Omar Sosa.

Performed at BAM's new 250-seat Fishman Space with Okwui Okpokwasili, this demanding, hour-long ritual digs beneath the surface of Black Woman as Icon (throwing in, less obviously, the Virgin Mary) to the archetypal id of imagination or, perhaps, reality. The intimate performance area remains quite dark almost throughout this experience, greatly magnifying the effect of sound (dripping water; heavy footfalls; a single voice ringing out or a welter of voices overlapping; orgasmic breaths, shrieks and moans) and, whenever it comes, the selective touch of light.

I was stunned to realize that Okpokwasili actually towers over Chipaumire--a majestic performer who looms larger in one's imagination than, perhaps, in reality. By the time Miriam concludes, in a blaze of light, you will have visited the place of the ancestral and archetypical intensities--desire, fear, shame, jealousy, anger. In other words, it is a hair-raising journey through the usually hidden end of the spectrum.

At the end, I stood to leave, struggling to adjust my eyes in a sudden shock of light. Meanwhile, two white women seated to my left immediately took up their pre-show chat precisely where they had left off, as if nothing at all had occurred in the interval. Unbelievable.

Directed by Eric Ting with lighting by Olivier Clausse, scenic design by Olivier Clausse/Hecho Mano, sound by Lucas Indelicato and costumes by Naoko Nagata

Nora Chipaumire's Miriam continues at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space) through Saturday with performances at 7:30pm. Tonight's show will be followed by an artist's talk moderated by Simon Dove.

BAM Fisher (Fishman Space)
Brooklyn Academy of Music
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
(around the corner from BAM's Peter Jay Sharp Building: map/directions)

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