If you didn’t know that Nora Chipaumire is a powerful woman with a strong message to deliver, you’d sense it several seconds before her solo Chimurenga (struggle, cry, revolution) begins. She doesn’t slip onto the stage during a blackout; you can hear her bare feet strike the floor as she strides into place. When a parallelogram of light appears around her, she’s got those feet planted, and she’s already breathing hard. Her shaven head and angular face are shining with sweat. She rolls up the sleeves of her white outfit and stares toward the mob (us) confronting her. Watch out!
It’s lucky that she doesn’t take a real rock or two from one of the small piles on the floor; the imaginary ones she hurls could break your head. We are in Chipaumire’s native Zimbabwe at the time of the Second Revolution, and this is a woman at the barricades—throwing stones, falling back, thrusting one aggressive hip at us as if it had a cutting edge. A film (by Chantal Buard and Kristin Tieche) of Chipaumire running through a ruined, desolate cityscape is projected on the back wall. She looks as if she could keep running forever.
Chimurenga is an expansion of Chipaumire’s 2004 Convoys, Curfews and Roadblocks, and she has added film, décor, a new sound score, and three costume changes. I get that feeling that she has stretched her explosive material a little too thin. There are dead spots amid the many gripping passages. For instance, we wait in near darkness while she changes from one rough-edged yet shapely outfit by Naoko Nagata to another; we can’t quite see her, but we can’t not see her either. Her use of assemblage as a structure often makes it hard to understand how the vivid moments connect or add up.
The piece is dedicated to her brother, who died in 1994 at 33 (at present, life expectancy for males in Zimbabwe is reported to be 37 years). Perhaps it’s his face that we see in close-up shots, along with photos of destroyed neighborhoods. She recites all the demeaning names for Africans used by the controlling white minority when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. Huddling over a tiny pile of spot-lit rocks, she feverishly, uselessly rearranges them. At one point, we hear the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th, played on what might be a music box or a distant, ruined piano.
As Chipaumire moves from one territory to another—each one delineated by a window or corridor of light on the floor—she relives tribal customs, happy memories of school days, and flight. Alex Potts’s sound installation of hanging gourds, beautifully lit by David Robertson, conceals small speakers issuing intermittent murmur, but Chipaumire also balances one gourd on her head like a village woman coming from the well, flicking water with her fingers. She remembers cream pies and licks her lips over a special kind of orange juice and “the boys at Morgan High.” Once she runs in place and the lighting casts dual shadows.
She’s a wonderful dancer—settling into deeply bent knees, swaying her hips, wheeling her arms. In one arresting journey, her mouth opening in a silent howl, she ventures along a downstage path of light (this may be the part with music by Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited), pausing to lift one leg and look at her foot, as if placing it down required thought in addition to care. Tread softly on this troubled earth. Thoughtfulness is a crucial element in her performing. No matter what bitter, angry, wild explosion of movement she lashes herself into, you can see it begin to well up like the stirrings of a volcano.