GUEST FEATURE: “Poor People’s TV Room” by Okwui Okpokwasili at ADI

From the DC Dance Journalism Project


By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Okwui Okpokwasili wants audiences to question what appears before their eyes to explore historical landmarks both included and redacted from the official record (Arts Initiative [undated], Columbia University). In “Poor People’s TV Room” – presented by American Dance Institute on November 18-19, 2016 –  the 1929 Nigerian women’s resistance movement and the 2013 Boko Haram* kidnapping of young girls are identified as seminal events that inspired Okpokwasili. However, these events are not inherently recognizable in the movement sequencing or spoken text and dialogue.

“Poor People’s TV Room” – initially shown in part by Lincoln Center in the David Rubenstein Atrium (2014) – has the look and feel of the legendary Australian “walk-about” in which living beings mirror and commune with the dead or take on alternate identities. To evoke that dream-time, Okpokwasili “mixes ritualistic and hallucinogenic movement, song, video, and text, creating a dystopian narrative in which characters slip through the fissures of time to wander in a bush of ghosts” (Walker She is aided by longtime collaborator Peter Born (who doubles as scenic and lighting designer) in the creation of the often haunting and occasionally indecipherable songs. Sedric Choukroun performs on saxophone.

As the audience enters the theater, two women (Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young) are step-stomping face-to-face. They touch and hug, push each other away and place their hands on each other’s faces. Another woman (Okpokwasili) is lying on a raised platform with a television placed below it on the floor; she rolls over and picks up a book. The character played by Young starts to twitch (especially her feet), and the steps of the two younger women become syncopated and separate.

Slow, rumbling sounds followed by percussive sticks underscore the accelerating drama. An older woman (Thuli Dumakude) sits solemnly in a plastic chair while a somewhat frightening character, completely covered by a blanket, advances slowly on all fours beneath the raised platform. One woman wraps herself around Okpokwasili, who retorts loudly and angrily: “Don’t look at me . . . you want to swallow me with your eyes.”

Two conversations take place simultaneously, with Okpokwasili and friend huddled next to the television – which turns out to be a picture of the pair. They rise and sit on the edge of the platform as the sound score changes to isolated beats. Then they canvass the stage in slow motion, alternately falling on each other with heads often touching. Okpokwasili hurls angry epithets with apparent historical significance not immediately comprehensible to the audience: “Like a cobra at the market . . . eyes fixed on you.” “She had to pay to live on her father’s land.” “They sat on his head” (a seeming reference to the 1929 women’s resistance movement). And, “‘They were dancing.”

Okpokwasili’s companion advances behind a blurry plastic scrim. The young woman played by Young mirrors her moves in front of the scrim (“I open my eyes and find I have gone nowhere”). Okpokwasili stands in place, dangling her arms and grasping her hands, then retreats to the platform. She grabs her wrists, at which point she seems – like the frequently cited Oprah Winfrey – to have become a “larger-than-life goddess.” Reid, the filmy character in floral garb and headscarf, is confronted vociferously (“Do you know what hunger is?”). Young crawls back under the blanket again as Reid symbolically beats her chest and the sound score booms loudly and grows scratchy.

A dramatic climax in the work erupts when a creature in luminescent and multicolored beaded costume played by Dumakude commands the space behind the plastic scrim. Her face is covered with only hands exposed. The scrim falls and the eerie specter keeps walking. The two younger women argue and the statuesque Okpokwasili delivers a final extended monologue.

A bright white tree-like structure dominates the stage and all four women step-stomp in unison, though arrayed at different corners of the stage. The lighting turns the women into semi-silhouettes. They move as a tableau, chanting in increasingly syncopated rhythms. “How can you quench my thirst?” “See my open palm.” “My eyes are open wide.” “Have I swallowed enough . . . or too much?” The young women clutch their stomachs and cling to one another. One appears to be gagging or choking (a vignette still more obvious when I viewed the piece a second time on Nov. 19th).

The characters appear to die, one-by-one. It was impossible now for this writer not to recall the two historical events mentioned as partial inspiration for Okpokwasili’s work. Metaphorically, were they the victims of Boko Haram? I posed this interpretation to the choreographer at the opening night reception. In a divergence from the staging technique of a largely indiscernible narrative, Okpokwasili offered that the women were merely resting. When pressed on the point, she maintained that poverty and starvation did not constitute problems for Nigeria. Coincidentally, at one o’clock in the morning after the performance, I caught a report on National Public Radio that noted the Nigerian government’s reluctance to admit the persistence of such problems. It caused me to wonder in retrospect about the powerful work just witnessed. Exactly whose dream are we living?

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher

*According to Wikipedia, Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes the political process in northern Nigeria has been “seized” by a group of “corrupt, false Muslims.” The sect seeks to wage war against them as well as the country of Nigeria in order to achieve a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.