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In Performance: Okwui Okpokwasili – Poor People’s TV Room (Out There Festival)

Poor People’s TV Room
Okwui Okpokwasili
Walker Art Center (Out There Festival)

As in 2014’s Bronx Gothic, Okwui Okpokwasili is in motion before the audience enters the space. In fact, all four performers (Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young) are already present and in motion. A large sheet of plastic stretches across the stage, separating Okpokwasili from the rest of the group, and blurring her image, as if she is a ghost or a spirit.

Unseen forces are a recurring theme in this work. Though Okpokwasili names two events from Nigeria’s history as influences (The Women’s War of 1929, and the Bring Back Our Girls movement sparked in response to mass kidnappings), this source material is not addressed directly or literally. The four women seem to spin through time, revealing snippets of stories real and imagined: a dystopian tale of sickness and death in which Oprah is a deity; a story of a young girl injured in an unnamed conflict, whose mother sits pumping the ventilator by her bedside, manually giving her breath; a fable about a girl who is transformed anew each morning into a different kind of animal.

Though the scenography is simple, striking images abound. From behind the plastic screen, a swarm of colored lights gathers, then breaks through the barrier and is revealed to be just a person wearing a sequined costume, and not a supernatural being from another world. A TV room lays on its side on a platform, and as performers move through it, a projected view of them “right”-side-up is displayed, putting the audience in a TV room of their own.

Through it all, consideration of the women’s relationship to each other predominates. Intimate connections are made with the body in the most fundamental of ways, from the drinking of breast milk to the sharing of breath. “I’m giving you my breath,” the script repeats several times. “I’ll come back in two months to see how you’ve taken care of this part of me.” Like the people of Nigeria, who have built a thriving filmmaking empire despite the challenges of, among other things, inconsistent electricity, these women take charge of how they are seen, unfolding truths in their own way at their own pace. Not dwelling on victimhood or loss, instead the work explores the embodiment of these stories and histories, demonstrating and even celebrating the preservation and survival of black women’s bodies.

photo by Caitlyn McCarthy

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