“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.”
In a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili, this is one of the multiple ways that the body and performance are discussed. The work subtly weaves together recent and historic women’s resistance movements in Nigeria with gestures of memory. Working in collaboration with director Peter Born, Okpokwasili began the process of creating Poor People’s TV Room in 2014 amid the heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists. Commissioned by the Walker, the Minneapolis debut of Poor People’s TV Room will be presented as part of Out There 2017. Performed by an all-female cast—Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young—Poor People’s TV Room explores the intersection between installation, theater, and dance in an effort to highlight collective action.
The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging conversation between the Walker’s Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow Danielle Jackson and Okwui Okpokwasili. Using Poor People’s TV Room as a point of departure, the interview traces the choreographer’s expansive research process including the history of Nigerian protest practices and its relationship to the performance, conditions of the body, and recent works presented by Okpokwasili.
Danielle A. Jackson: I thought we might begin with you speaking more generally about how you begin your projects conceptually?
Okwui Okpokwasili: Overall, my concerns are with visibility and the nature of performance and the body and how bodies are read—how bodies can undermine or reaffirm those readings. Brown and black bodies on stage surface a kinetic architecture weighted with pain, pathologies, resilience, joy. I’m interested in the dynamics of legibility and trying to confound easy readings. So even though I may begin projects with a kernel inquiry, or question, and, even though the DNA or genetic material of that initial seed remains, ultimately the moment of encounter between performers and audience, during performance, takes precedence. My love is with brown bodies—maybe it goes back to childhood—this sense of always looking for some reflection in the larger world of an experience that might resonate with mine, and a body behaving in ways that reaffirm what I believe about bodies and at the same time challenge that belief.
For Poor People’s TV Room, I was reacting to the kidnapping of 276 girls in northern Nigeria (the Chibok schoolgirls) by Boko Haram, sparking the #bringbackourgirls movement. I applauded the attention given to these Nigerian schoolgirls who disappeared, but I also felt that we were losing a sense of who the initiating voices of this outcry were: the mothers, the women in Nigeria. That fact belies what people’s assumptions tend to be about African women. They aren’t framed within the lens of agency and self-advocacy. They’re generally framed as victims that need to be saved.
I’m Nigerian-American, and I’ve always been interested in what was visible or not visible about ideas of West African women. And that sprung into this question of whether there’s a legacy of collective action? I looked into evidence and forms of embodied protest practices that, in a sense, the women in northern Nigeria were also an extension of. There was the Women’s War in 1929, in Nigeria, where thousands of women came together to protest what they considered the violent and disruptive actions of a colonial government on their being, on their culture. As I looked into some of these forms, I saw that there were protests where women stripped themselves naked. In precolonial culture, it was fine for young girls to be bare on top, but after marriage you’d cover yourself, especially after you’ve had children. So actually older women were stripping themselves bare in order to shame the person watching them. There was also something called “sitting on a man’s head,” where the women would go to a compound in villages in Eastern Nigeria. It was considered a private space, but the women would go into the compounds of elders or people who had certain amounts of power. They would stay in their compounds, sing songs denigrating them, making fun of them, complaining to them, telling these officials “step up” or asking, “Why are you insulting us?” It was a deeply embodied action. As I was looking into all of this, Ferguson happened, the Black Lives Matter movement was taking off—again, another movement that, even in its dispersal, that’s been helmed by African-American women. I felt this resonance with these bodies, in motion, together. The events in Nigeria, around the Women’s War in 1929, were sometimes referred to in Igbo language as the “Grand egwu.” “Egwu” means “dance,” so this collective action is linguistically linked to the language of dance, or performance.
The first thing that I did was build a collective song with the help of my partner, my collaborator, Peter Born. It was a 50-minute song that I sang in a solo, and we constructed an environment that was encased in a box that was covered in plastic, and there was a projection on the floor, a series of trailers from Nollywood movies, creating a shifting source light. I wanted to see if I could, within my own body, resonate with multiple voices. So I built this song that was meant to evoke a collective cry or a shout-out.
Jackson: Women spearheaded these resistance movements, and the performers in Poor People’s TV Room are all women.
Okpokwasili: Yes, that’s right. It was a female thing!
Jackson: Is that an outcrop of your research? There’s also an intergenerational component to this piece.
Okpokwasili: We span at least three decades. Late 20s, early 30s, mid 40s, and 60s. I wanted to have some sort of generational spectrum. I feel there are certain things that are carried and marked on the body that, even if you’re not speaking to those things directly, they surface, and working with these women is also about finding these compelling singular individuals. Our resident elder [Thuli Dumakude] has a full performance life. She’s won an Olivier Award and been on Broadway. She’s created her own singing groups and bands. She was a part of the company that organized the entertainment for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. She left South Africa and returned to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The younger women have multidisciplinary practices and bring powerful and singular vocabularies that come from their individual work as movement makers.
Maybe you’re right in saying that having this group of women is also another outcrop of this initial generating seed that began with the research I was doing into the Women’s War. A lot of my discursive thinking and expansiveness is activated by my ongoing collaboration with Peter Born. I think as a director, as a kind of co-facilitator of the work, he and I can engage in conversations around what the form and structure of these investigations should take and try to find ways to explore together the kind of vocabulary that we need. He has a very expansive way of considering what can happen in the theater.
Jackson: I was present for when i return who will receive me, performed in June 2016 as part of the River To River Festival at Fort Jay Magazine on Governor’s Island. It was a performative installation on a two-hour durational loop. You presented fragments from Poor People’s TV Room there. How will the Walker iteration differ?
Okpokwasili: The Walker iteration is actually going to be in the theater proper. All of the women in Poor People’s TV Room were also in when i return who will receive me. Peter and I have been writing a narrative to facilitate a feeling, tone, and mood, so in that sense it’s similar because the River To River performance was about generating a kind of energetic field in the room. It will be different in that it has a specific beginning, middle, and end, and it’s in a space that you come into and have a very clear and stable physical or architectural position to.
Jackson: You reference the Women’s War of 1929 and the #bringbackourgirls movement, but often with your performances the research isn’t immediately recognizable to an audience.
Okpokwasili: I don’t know that I want it to be.
Jackson: You don’t want to make documentary work, but you don’t want these histories to be forgotten either.
Okpokwasili: Right. The work has its own engine and its own demand. I want to have all of my attention focused on addressing the demand of the work rather than any polemical or didactic concerns that might have started me on my journey. I’m really concerned about how bodies can resonate in a space and leave a deep imprint. I think if the concerns are only with getting a particular story out, or at least getting a story out only in the text, then I lose something about what the impact would be. I am working in a medium where dance is a part of my vocabulary, and I feel a very unique and amazing thing that [dance] can facilitate is some kind of body transference, where you can feel like you are in another person’s body.
Bodies can get really weird and strange and confusing but still compelling. We don’t necessarily know why a body is moving the way it’s moving, or where it’s going, or how it began, or why it’s ending the way it is, but we can see that a moving body can create a kind of vortex, and we can be spun in, even in our confusion. There’s something about that that’s a kind of critical space in performance. I’m always concerned also with memory and with the idea that some things may surface on a cellular level, or in the skin. There’s something about the River To River/Fort Jay piece that started to feel like a shrine. We come into this ritual and we may not know or understand why it’s using this particular language. You go into church and you don’t always understand the liturgy, you don’t understand exactly why or what everything means, but there’s another understanding, of occupying sacred space, of the need to listen intently. It is a space where all strangers are family in a moment and come together and commune over non-literal language designed to open up a channel to a spiritual awakening. And of course, there’s music, a critical centripetal force.
Jackson: Energetic forces are always present in your work. The first piece I saw you perform was Bronx Gothic at New York Live Arts. In Bronx Gothic you are already on stage when the audience enters. You stand in a corner shaking to the point of exhaustion and your shadow is projected onto the wall. I paid close attention to your movements. Most of the audience didn’t seem aware that the performance had begun. Fifteen minutes later, everyone tuned in. I left Bronx Gothic feeling a change in my body—a feeling that I haven’t been able to fully articulate in words. Affect was so present.
Okpokwasili: That’s what I want. I want some change! Even if it’s not like, “Oh, I went to this performance and now I’m different for the rest of my life.” I want some granular shift that is so deep inside that I will never be able to know what that shit was or locate where it happened, but I felt that shit!
Jackson: Poor People’s TV Room, where did the title come from?
Okpokwasili: It comes from a novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe, that I was reading. There was a wealthy and corrupt government official in a village in Nigeria, who, when pressed about what he was doing for poor people in the village with his ill-gotten gains, talked about how he provided them with a TV room. He called it the poor people’s TV room. It was an air-conditioned room on the outer edges of his home where people would come in and sit and watch reruns of basketball highlight videos from the late ’80s. That made me think of questions I had when I went back to Nigeria and visited my parent’s home village and saw the disparity in wealth and the lack of labor protections and labor laws. There’s also a nod to something that I think is amazing—Nollywood, which is the second largest movie industry in the world. Africans, particularly Nigerians, are starting to take narratives into their own hands; instead of pirating western popular movies, they’re like, “Well, we can do this!” Considering that electricity can be hard to come by in Nigeria, or at least inconsistent, to think that they’re generating millions of movies a year and finding ways to work around a spotty electrical infrastructure—how they’re making that happen is pure fucking genius! So, there’s also a bit of that.
Jackson: In a recent interview with Jenn Joy, you had an interesting moment where you discuss the idea of possession, sustaining a tie between the living and the dead, and how the body functions within that.
Okpokwasili: Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up. Or maybe I just want to be possessed, as an audience member? Again, that’s maybe connected to the vortex. What’s flashing through my head is Maya Deren and her film Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti, which brings up questions. Who owns the body? Who can claim the body? What does it mean to have a god inhabit your body?
Of course there is a desire as a performer, as a choreographer, as a maker to find an engine to facilitate instances of possession and dispossession. It’s weird: I want to claim and hold on to something and then I want to let it go. I want to be in a state of dynamic coming together and letting go, coming together, and falling apart.
Possession is a big thing!