Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam” at BAM

Okwui Okpokwasii and Nora Chipaumire. Photo by Antoine Tempe.

During my college days, I had a feminist professor who railed that for women, smiling is the obsequious equivalent of a dog rolling over on its stomach. I was mindful of my smiles and their subservient subtext for the next week, but then slipped back into my usual (apparently ingratiating) social habits. I was reminded of these fraught associations by the whispered exhortation to “smile” that bookends dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire’s Miriam, at the new BAM Fisher theater earlier this week, and touring nationally this fall.

A duet for Chipaumire and the ever-regal Okwui Okpokwasili, Miriam supposedly references the South African singer Miriam Makeba along with the biblical Miriams: the Virgin Mary, and in the Hebrew tradition, the sister to Moses. Chipaumire’s artist statement notes that she is “challenging stereotypes of Africa and the black female body by confronting history and political ideologies,” so I was prepared for a sharp exploration of gender, the body, and the other.

The performance space is configured with the audience on four sides, and the costumes and sets freely tap imagery of contemporary and traditional Africa via a found-object aesthetic: the dimly-lit stage is strewn with dangling bare light bulbs, yellow caution tape, a ladder that doubles as a lighting structure, a water jug suspended over a metal washtub, and a drum.

Miriam opens with Okpokwasili and composer Omar Sosa slowly walking the perimeter of the stage, a motif with overtones of ritual that is repeated later on. Chipaumire gradually emerges from a pile of stones and plastic rubble—her leg initially juts straight up in the air, although it’s barely discernible in the opening dimness—and then responds to orders bellowed by Okpokwasili through a bullhorn, who looms over her on top of the ladder. It’s a strong moment of visual theater, with powerful social and political connotations, and while I spent the next 60 minutes searching for equally substantial material, I came up more than a little short.

Part of this is due to the physical darkness in which the entire piece occurs—calling it under lit is generous. I did much better when I focused on the rich auditory side of Miriam, from Sosa’s multi-layered sound score, performed live by him in a corner, to the rustlings of the objects onstage and Chipaumire’s guttural cries and whimpers. But even this element of Miriam was problematic; I was unable to clearly hear much of what Okpokwasili said through the bullhorn at various points during the piece.

Filled with oblique references, Miriam dwells in a world of the barely seen and the partially heard. This may be in part deliberate, but such a level of inscrutability was detrimental to my overall understanding and engagement with what was happening onstage.  The few snippets of full-bodied movement were tantalizing, but I was left with a sense of having witnessed fragments of an interesting artist at work, and frustration that there wasn’t more to hold onto.

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