As we enter the theater at New York Live Arts, Poor People’s TV Room has already begun; figures move on the wide stage, both behind and before a sheet of translucent, striated plastic. The space is divided by an extension cord feeding a simple clamp light. To the left, two plastic armchairs sit in the dark. To the right, an elaborate construction resembling a low table is fronted by a large flat-screen monitor; hanging above it are table lamps, lying on their sides in the air. In front of it, another plastic armchair.
Moving among and between these objects are four barefoot women who appear to have nothing but the clothes they wear. Okwui Okpokwasili — who conceived Poor People’s TV Room and wrote it with director and designer Peter Born — is behind the plastic, dancing intently, naked to her waist. Loud industrial sound fills the room. The other women (Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young) speak softly, barely audible except when they stand and declaim, reporting history or the news or observations about Oprah, who is somehow a godhead in this environment, part of both the forces of oppression and the hope for release. We seem to be in both the present (Young wears contemporary workout clothes) and in some colonial past, in an Africa where spirits may suddenly appear, embodied in mysterious sparkling garments.
Okpokwasili herself is loud, imperious, either the mistress of the peculiar tilted house on the right, or somehow delusional, or both. The performers lie on the table but through the magic of video appear to us to be upright, sitting or standing, looking out a window at clouds. Reid sits in a wooden chair; Okpokwasili, after berating her, lies across her lap and suckles at her breast. Sometimes she rants about the power structure in the Nigerian market town where, it appears, this quartet is imprisoned.
On the other side, Dumakude — the elder in this group, in real life an award-winning South African performer, writer, and director — and Young talk quietly; we catch snippets of their conversation about T-shirt slogans. Young reports growing a tail, which she cuts off and buries, but which grows back and turns into another girl. In the middle of the stage, Okpokwasili and Reid roll together on the floor, head to head, back to back. As the ninety-minute piece unfolds, we gather that Reid has recently given birth but that the child has not survived. These women have undergone unspeakable hardships but continue to speak. Perhaps they are hallucinating; perhaps they are seers, poets, managing their difficult situation with the courage of their female power.
Born’s lighting casts the huge sheet of plastic sometimes as water, sometimes as sky, sometimes as desert, and picks out the performers in concentrated solos. The uncredited sound score modulates to a pattern of breath, then swells to evoke trucks, gunfire, aircraft.
For the past decade Okpokwasili, a Nigerian American raised in the Bronx, has been responsible for, or part of, the most compelling performance work to be seen on this country’s stages. This new piece, in development for several years, requires intense concentration on the part of its audience — and repays it in kind. Closer in form to poetry or liturgy than to conventional drama or dance, its riveting text invokes popular tropes (Oprah’s face on a piece of toast! her profile in the dimples of a potato chip!) and recounts a series of magical transformations. It tells of a woman who becomes, by turns, a cat, an ox, a butterfly, a fish, a cobra, an impala, a yellow leaf, and, finally, the dust between the toes of a chimpanzee.
Okpokwasili and Born have taken on a huge challenge: to represent, for American audiences now, the horrors of colonial Nigeria some ninety years ago, and the ways those forms of oppression linger in contemporary behavior. We may leave bewildered, or we, too, may be transformed.
Poor People’s TV Room
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street
Through April 29