Culture Vulture: Okwui Okpokwasili’s POOR PEOPLE’S TV ROOM

April 30, 2017

April 29 – Thrilling to see the final performance of Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room at New York Live Arts. Devised in collaboration with director-designer Peter Born, this extraordinary performance created a highly sophisticated dreamscape that sustained separate physical, verbal, visual, and sonic tracks for 90 minutes. Not a narrative but a theatrical symphony of themes and variations about women’s bodies, doubles, shape-shifting, this world, the other world…oh, and Oprah. Two pairs of women enacted a series of rituals elliptically stitched together, as if the piece were inventing itself moment by moment. (The riveting performers represent a wide age range – Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young are younger than Okpokwasili, and the resident elder is quietly monumental Thuli Dumakude, whom New Yorkers first glimpsed in 1982’s Poppie Nongena)  Lots of dense poetic text, sometimes two people speaking at once, not always meant to be heard. “She used quiet like a cobra in the market.” “How do we know her perpetual transformation isn’t just stagnation?”

In interviews Okpokwasili has talked about the piece as a response to Black Lives Matter, to the abduction of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and Nigerian women’s protest practices in the early 20th century. (She herself comes from a Nigerian family though she was born and raised in the Bronx.) But none of that is foreground in the piece. Instead the performance takes viewers on a deep psychic journey through black women’s bodies. Not quite like anything else I’ve seen before. I’d love to see it again. Here’s a fascinating video about the rehearsal process.

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