in portrait of myself as my father
below: with Shamar Watt(photos: Gennadi Novash)
What a scene at BAM Fisher's Fishman Space! People excitedly grabbing each and every one of the general admission seats. Stragglers desperately searching for places to sit with companions. Harsh lights gleaming from the corners of a boxing ring. The crowd arranged along three sides of the ring and starting to fill the balconies. And as people enter, the evening's star--Zimbabwe-born dance artist nora chipaumire--giving each person gliding past her an appraising once-over, not always silently, although her imperial silence can and will burn anything to a crisp.
I watched chipaumire with amusement and trepidation, the latter brought on not only by the mystery of what might be going on inside her regal head but also by the look of her shoulders braced and armored in football pads, the way she thrust her Black body out beyond the ring's edge and right up into our faces, the amplified animalistic growls arising from some darkened corner of the ring. And, mostly, her restlessness as she examined each unknowing, distracted bypasser, the sense of her engines revving, revving, revving.
Lemme hear you say, Yeah, she says. (Someone bravely answers, Yeah.)
I've been waiting for you.
I'm ready. I'm ready.
Her moves are rhythmic, rolling, spongey, every well-oiled joint sure of itself, tilting forward, ever at the ready.
I been ready. In fact, I was born ready.
Come on, Brooklyn. Let's do this!
Give me a green light. Now. Now.
The name of her extravagant trio--co-presented by BAM's Next Wave, 651 Arts and Théâtre de la Ville--is portrait of myself as my father. Except that the word "father" is struck out. Here, with thoughts of her father--estranged from his family since she was only five--chipaumire takes on masculinity, specifically Black African masculinity, and sets it down in the boxing ring of imagination and of daily life. Here, no matter what time it is, it is somehow always Round One for the Black man.
(photo: Julieta Cervantes)
One-part Muhammad Ali rumbling in the jungle. One-part James Brown rumbling at the Apollo. And quite a lot of Black men fighting for their very lives on the daily. This is chipaumire, our chin-thrusting, strutting champion, delivering her MAN-ifesto along with collaborating performers, Shamar Watt and Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (aka Kaolack).
|Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack) with chipaumire|
(photo: Julieta Cervantes)
But I have not yet mentioned the visual element that, from first to last, most spoke to me--the elastic boxing ring ropes that tether chipaumire and Kaolack's bodies and which occasionally threaten to entangle all three players. You can see them as rough leashes restraining dangerous beasts or puppet strings controlling the range and articulation of their actions. They're worn by the dancers as a matter of course--like no biggie--but why? Like the ring itself, they define how far these characters can go but, within those limits, chipaumire and her mates do their most, infusing the space with energy, with aggression, with sexuality, all the while acknowledging the lingering distortions and damage wrought by colonialism and white dominance.
I think chipaumire hopes we will see those tethers as less restricting than we might first think them to be. She is invested in breaking open the way we see African men and Africa itself. And, in a time when Black male bodies, in popular awareness, are most associated with entertainment, incarceration or genocide, she wants to imagine how Black bodies might matter to Black bodies, how Black bodies might seize their own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She is seeking the life her father and his generation never had and striving to snap the tethers his generation accepted.
|Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack) with umbrella|
leads chipaumire and Watt.
(photo: Gennadi Novash)
Ladies and gentlemen, the question is: How do you become a Black man? A Black African man?
You slow down...you slow way down. Like you have the time, like you own time. In fact, you become time.
During the useful post-show Q&A, moderated by Simon Dove, one audience member admiringly referred to the show as "a dangerous work." I agree and admire, too. This production and its three performers are outstanding. Moreover, with this portrait, chipaumire has delivered her clearest and most commanding work to date.
With original music/soundscore by Philip White
portrait of myself as my father continues at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space) tonight and tomorrow with performances at 7:30. For information and tickets, click here.
BAM Fisher/Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
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