Tuesday, September 22, 2015

South Africa's Mmakgosi Kgabi finds her light

Mmakgosi Kgabi, above and below,
in Shades of a Queen
(photos: Thomas Aurin)


For New York--a city that (thinks it) has seen it all and many times over--Johannesburg's Mmakgosi Kgabi is an startling original. Sad to say, her solo performance of Shades of a Queen--curated by Marýa Wethers for Queer New York International Arts Festival--ran only one evening. You really ought to catch this performance artist and, perhaps, some smart programmer will bring her back to New York.

Performed last night at Abrons Arts Center's Experimental Theater, Shades of a Queen imagines the complications of coming out queer while African. Or, at least, in Kgabi's uncommon mind, coming out queer when the name your Botswanan mother gave you implies a singular status. Mmakgosi translates to "The Mother of the Chief," and, for the purposes of this piece, Kgabi's dramatic persona rocks a pinched, high-pitched British accent with the Cockney tag innit lashed to the end of sentences like a subversive tic. Who is this creature? Well, she calls herself Her Majesty the Queen.

When we first meet Her Majesty, a mysterious figure dressed in black tights and a diaphanous black cape, she's singing softly to herself and drifting around the sparse furnishings of the darkened space. A white couch faces away from the audience, and occasionally Kgabi will take a moment to comfortably settle there, still singing. A matching armchair, at a short distance, is toppled onto its side and remains so. We have no idea why. An open notebook rests on a small white table with several e-devices lining its shelf. These will play an amusing role in the proceedings as Her Majesty carries on several improvised conversations with "callers"--some clear, some clueless, some creepy--each successive call detaining her from carrying out her stated intention to leave the apartment and go to the thee-AY-tah!

Her voice. A harsh, stringently pretentious one matched by precise, insistent, increasingly impatient physicality. A finely-trained Kgabi masters it all.

"We're going to the thee-AY-tah, darling!"

"You have to put your best foot forward."

"You have to relax, speak properly...."

"You bless them with the knowledge of who you are, darling!"

"Where's that spot? Where is my light?"

"You find your light, dear. You find your presence."

With the knowledge that Shades of a Queen is riffing on the idea of coming out as queer, we begin to hear Kgabi's dialogues and actions as internal exhortations, disturbances and, ultimately, diversions. The interfering shades are a Shadow Self not easily laid to rest. Her rumblings with the external world trigger rumbling within, upending the familiar comforts and confines of home. Luckily for us, they also bring about an entertaining evening and the introduction of a confident and fascinating artist. More, please!

Kgabi is a member of South Africa's multidisciplinary Stash the Suitcase Performance Arts Collective. Follow the collective's work here.

Queer New York International Arts Festival continues events at Abrons through September 26. For information and tickets for other QNYIAF events, click here.

Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan

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