Friday, April 21, 2017

Shadow dancing: Okwui Okpokwasili at New York Live Arts

Katrina Reid (left) and Okwui Okpokwasili
in Poor People's TV Room
(photo: Paul B. Goode)

Follow me, follow me....

A gentle, haunting refrain concludes Okwui Okpokwasili's Poor People’s TV Room, shown now at New York Live Arts. The sweetness of that final plea cuts to the soul. The artist, with her multitude of tools and methods, draws us closer to a forgotten people and removes some of the false comfort of distance and ignorance.

For this complex, 90-minute piece, Okpokwasili drew impetus from the resistance of Nigerian women against British colonialism and, more recently, their organizing for the return of 300 girls kidnapped by the militant group, Boko Haram. Teaming up again with director/visual designer Peter Born, with whom she shares two Bessie Awards, Okpokwasili reshapes not only the stage space at New York Live Arts but the way in which the meaning of a potentially didactic history can be artfully conveyed through an assured blend of movement, text, song and imagery.

Born's set hacks a wedge of space out of the wide NYLA stage and litters it with things the eye works hard to identify or, if identified as they are used, resolve into an overall coherence. His lighting ranges from withholding to assaulting, mostly making us aware that there's so much we will not see, cannot interpret, might never reach. Like Okpokwasili singing "I am the face beneath the sand...," or a figure draped entirely in jet black cloth somehow twinkling from Born's harsh light, the visual space of the work tantalizes us with the possibility and impossibility of discovery. Or the unreliability of discovery.

For my part, I will long carry the image of a woman--Okpokwasili, it turned out--pressed into the far side of a wide stretch of translucent fabric, rising into elusive visibility like ectoplasm. I struggled with the violent mechanical sounds, which viewers readily feel within their own bodies. And I wondered at the tiny skitter steps of elder Thuli Dumakude, South African-born star of music and stage, and the precise, if arcane, gestures performed by the younger Black American artist Katrina Reid. Both bodies, at the epicenter of violent force, confront and defy the oppressive sound. Or so it seemed to me.

Poor People's TV Room is a robust creation transcending category for real and not just in the academic talk we've come to expect. But it's thrilling to know that an artist of the body, a dancer, envisioned and guided this achievement.


Thuli Dumakude, Okwui Okpokwasili, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young

Poor People's TV Room continues with performances April 21-22 and April 26-29, all at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan

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