Punk is a noun, punk is an adjective. Punk is torn white t-shirts, distorted power cords, and angry adolescent growls into a mic. But in Nora Chipaumire’s latest piece presented as part of American Realness, punk is, first and foremost, a verb. The first in a trilogy exploring iconic women musicians from the artist’s formative years in 1970s, 80s, and 90s Zimbabwe, #PUNK waves a middle finger in the face of expectation from the moment the audience enters the theater. On our feet crowded around a bare low platform, the classic Abrons Playhouse proscenium stage has never felt like this before. It is electric and raw, transcendent even as bright white work lights and pulsating guitar distortion blares at audience and performers alike from all sides. For a solid hour, the whole space shakes.
Chipaumire and co-performer Shamar Watt drench the audience in sweat and spit as they move in and out of fragments of choreography, text, and music, all bite-size references from the choreographer’s coming of age. Movement scores fuse Shona-inspired dance moves with racist American tropes of blackness; lines from classic punk rock songs are repeated over a collision of 70s rock and reggae songs. Throughout all this, long-haired guitarist David Gagliardi plays dutifully in the corner, creating an authentic electric punk soundscape and reminding us that no matter what we see onstage before us, punk rock is still dominated by white men. His presence is never directly acknowledged, but feels critical to Chipaumire’s reclamation of the musical style.
#PUNK is as anti-establishment in its structure as any piece with that four-letter word in the title must be, and Chipaumire channels an attitude that hinges precariously between confrontation and summoning at all times. The result is intoxicating. Rational logic is destroyed, smashed like an electric guitar in the hands of a 70s rocker. Images accumulate into a non-linear, embodied truth that vibrates as much through the audience’s bodies as the performers’. We feel the unrest, anger, sweat, tears, and blood of American blackness. Just as Chipaumire can never step out of her own skin, her identity, or the daily anxieties of oppression, so must we move relentlessly forward with her without a moment to breathe; there is no quiet, no stillness, no digestible narrative to offer us respite or satisfaction in this piece. For an evening, we live inside her body with her as she externalizes a potential energy rife with righteous rage, wild brilliance, legacies of Zimbabwean ancestors, visions of the future. Just as punk rock can access a primal pleasure through rage and destruction, #PUNK is a necessary release. Chipaumire demands that we embrace internal unrest and feed that power into the collective.
Photo: Jesus Robisco