By Okwui Okpokwasili; Directed by Peter Born
Produced by MAPP International Productions in association with New York Live Arts' Randjelovic/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist Program
Off Off Broadway, Experimental Performance
Runs through 4.29.19
New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street
by Ran Xia on 4.25.17
Okwui Okpokwasili and Katrina Reid in Poor People's TV Room. Photo by Paul B. Goode.
BOTTOM LINE: Okwui Okpokwasili creates a dreamscape of poetry and melancholy in which a woman's body is a site of protest.
Sometimes you go to the theatre to witness a story with a beginning, middle, and an end; sometimes you go to be enveloped by something else entirely, a realm that defies the boundary of time and space, where different worlds collide and deities co-exist with commerce to guide you through a dream. Poor People’s TV Room is such a dream. It’d be an insult to categorize Okwui Okpokwasili’s kaleidoscopic creation into any genre. The closest description might be that this piece is a multi-sensory poem, a fantasia that blends subtle social commentary with expressionist dance, and combines elements of myth with reality. At first glance Poor People’s TV Room doesn’t have a clear narrative, or any narrative at all, yet by the end of the ninety-minute experience, you’ll feel as if you’ve received the life stories of an entire culture of women—they come from different generations and backgrounds, connected by the agonies and hopes they share, and the love that strengthens them all.
What comes first is a wave of sound (part of the impressive concept by both Okpokwasili and director Peter Born)—static, distant, something that exists in the twilight zone between the subconscious and awareness. A colossal, half translucent screen bisects the stage at an angle, separating two dancing bodies. Behind the screen is Okpokwasili, nude from the waist up, her movements erratic, with a pang of passion in its rawest form. In front of the screen is Katrina Reid, who moves with a calculated determination, precise. Another pair of women (Nehemoyia Young and Thuli Dumakude) occupies the stage with a duet: tentative, in support of each other, two moving like one. The four seem a natural part of the abstract, dreamlike world as they intercept aspects of dark and light on a stage that looks strangely more like a warehouse than the titular TV room.
The enigmatic and atmospheric process reminds you of a conceptual video that plays in loop in a museum installation room, and it plays for just enough time for you to be hypnotized, before Yeru (Dumakude) begins to tell the myth of Oprah—the myth of how mass media made a deity out of a woman.
A separate, surreal narrative forms between Madam (Okpokwasili) and her house girl Merit (Reid), which expands around an elevated platform on stage left that is in fact a background set of a room (wallpaper, windows, chairs and all), except everything is horizontal. The two performers lie atop the structure, and their actions are projected onto a screen. Nollywood movies, part of Okpokwasili’s inspiration, might have influenced the melodramatic acting style, brilliantly eccentric costumes, and the saturated colors of the sub-play.
The focus shifts between the two pairs as the show continues. Dumakude and Young become the media between the audience and the projected action. They watch, as the audience does, the “television show” on the screen, and offer commentary which morphs into narratives of their memories and various tales inspired by dystopian folklores, speculative fictions, Igbo cosmology, as well as commodities markets. Young’s character Honor speaks of her mother’s superstition with literature on T-shirts, reading them like fortune cookies: “I Didn’t Come From Your Rib, You Came From My Vagina.”
What’s interesting about the piece is that the four female characters, while drastically different and occupying completely different realms, seem to have a collectively shared experience. They are connected by texts that repeat each other’s experiences as if they were the same person at different ages, as well as by songs—the reality and television worlds are connected through the duets.
The multi-generational performers are equally impressive in their own ways: Dumakude's straight-forwardness gives her an aura of someone who's seen great loss, yet persevered. The younger performers, Young and Reid, also have dynamic yet effortless presence on stage. Okpokwasili’s eccentric glory blossoms in every way: she demands attention just by being, yet she can also completely disappear into the background when she needs to.
This conceptually fascinating, exquisitely constructed piece is, at its core, about the strength and endurance of women. Dance is not only a means of expression, but also an essential part of the narrative, as the piece is partly inspired by the Grand Women’s Egwu in 1929 (when thousands of Nigerian women engaged in a peaceful protest against the oppressive colonial government). In the Igbo language, "egwu" means dance. Indeed the unarmed, dancing body of a woman is the very site of protest. The use of nudity is also a powerful and essential statement, for it is Okpokwasili’s belief that “nakedness is a weapon to be strategically deployed.” And here, the idolization of Oprah is not just pop culture satire, but instead speaks to how she is a symbol of hope for people who have nothing else to hold on to, much like the role television plays in poor people's lives. I suppose that's how the piece gets its name.
Poor People’s TV Room is breathtakingly beautiful to say the least. Its concept is elaborate like a labyrinth, but this is not to say the show is obscure. Even if the narratives are lost, the themes are ultimately loud and clear. There are performances that awaken you like thunder; there are also ones that seep into your veins and linger on. Poor People’s TV Room is the latter. Its force is soft, but like the waves that ultimately change the shapes of unyielding rocks, it will find a place in your mind.
(Poor People's TV Room plays at New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, through April 29, 2017. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30. Tickets start at $15 and are available at newyorklivearts.org or by calling 212-924-0077.)
Poor People's TV Room is by Okwui Okpokwasili. Directed by Peter Born. Choreography and Original Songs are by Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born. Set and Lighting Designs are by Peter Born. Production Manager is Santino Lo.
The cast is Okwui Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young.