Bessie Award-winning artist Okwui Okpokwasili is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. With “Poor People’s TV Room,” created with designer/director Peter Born and presented over the weekend by ICA/Boston, she mines Nigeria’s sad history of gender oppression. The work proves to be an intense, messy, provocative examination of not only gender but wider identity issues. And as it unfolds, it also brings to light stories of loss, pain, resistance, and compassion.
Using movement, song, stories, and film, the multi-generational work for four women was sparked by two historical incidents — the Women’s War of 1929, and the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings of nearly 300 girls. But the creators wisely focus in at a more personal level through a series of stories and memories, beginning with an opening riff on “when Oprah was a human being” and a tale about “The Big Scream.” The work’s text is powerful — sometimes piercingly direct, other times poetic, often vulgar. Conversations explode and spill in noisy layers. Stories bound through time and call to mind twisted folktales or fevered hallucinogenic ramblings. T-shirt slogans figure prominently, and they repeatedly tell each other, “I’m sorry, I interrupted you.”
The most heartbreaking moment is a memory simply told. Thuli Dumakude’s character recalls digging her young daughter out of the rubble from an explosion, later keeping her collapsed lung inflated only by the rhythmic squeeze of her hand on the bulb of a respirator, pumping, pumping until her hands go numb and her daughter’s spirit is no longer there.
Okpokwasili tells an intriguing tale about a young girl who wakes up every morning as something different — a cat, a feather, elephant dung. And she dances a striking, contorted solo that is all sharp angles and agitated flailing, as if she is birthing her own demons. Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young are similarly gifted movers. In rotating duets, the women subtly veer between tender and confrontational, supporting and carrying each another one moment, pushing each other away the next, their feet drumming a rhythmic tattoo.
A semi-transparent backdrop blurs figures behind it, creating a kind of dancing ectoplasm, and it affords a vivid play of light and shadow. A raised platform on which the dancers sometimes lay is filmed to look as if they are standing or sitting. We see them as well as their inverted images projected onto a screen directly above, the “Poor People’s TV” perhaps, continually skewing perspective.
“Poor People’s TV Room” is overly long and puzzlingly fragmented. But it is also strangely compelling and quite unforgettable, suggesting not just survival, but transformation. Okpokwasili sings as the lights dim, “Who are you? Who am I?” We can only wonder.
Poor People’s TV Room
At ICA/Boston, Saturday night, March 10Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.