“Poor People’s TV Room” – Interview with Okwui Okpokwasili

Photo by Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Okwui Okpokwasili. Multiple Bessie Award-winning performer and maker. NYLA’s Stryker/Ranjelovic Resident Commissioned Artist. Mother. Human. Electromagnetic Force. Watching her wail beyond my ability to bear it in Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?; Come Home Charley Patton or amidst the shifting landscapes of adolescent girlhood in her Bronx Gothic, I have found myself struggling to negotiate the intense draw of her performance against my terrified repulsion at the pathos and power emanating from her single body. There are ideas and experiences, sometimes outlandish and delightful, but often soul-crying-ly inescapable that rise to the surface in her work as a choreographer and as a performer. She premieres her newest cross-disciplinary work Poor People’s TV Room, with her regular collaborator, director and designer Peter Born, at NYLA April 19-22, 26-29. It is the culmination of her two-year residency at NYLA and will be performed by her along with Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young.

Inspired in part by the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 in Nigeria, Poor People’s TV Room considers the “entanglement of visibility and shared embodiment, with the spectral and insistent presence of forgotten women. It is a speculative, impressionistic work grounded in a narrative of the bodies of brown women.” It uses the TV room as a space of resistance, a space to talk back, and a space of memory and history – working to challenge the “disappearance of black women in cultural narratives, especially as empowered agents of their own change.” Okwui and I recently spoke over the phone during her residency and performances at MassMoCA.

How is it up there? You’re doing a site-specific performance in the Nick Cave exhibit? That must be wild.

It’s amazing right now here at MassMoCa. I’m doing the performance in the Nick Cave exhibit, activing the space. It’s so, so, super live. That’s kind of daunting. In Poor People’s TV Room, I was thinking about moving through this world like we are in a strange city in part of Africa-slash-NYC–slash-imagination. With Nick Cave, it is reminiscent of a kind of an African space, especially his Soundsuits which make me thing of W. African masquerade. He talked about his windspinner forest as the inside of a soundsuit, so when I perform in the windspinner forest I think of being inside the space of a masquerade that contains both the ceremonial and the spiritual. We might be asking something from the ancestors, we might be imploring. We’re going into that space in Poor People’s TV Room. Are there these other people watching you? What is the veil between the living and the dead? What is the nature of time? It’s interesting to inhabit that space here amidst Until.

That’s fascinating. What a great connection between his worlds and yours. There’s a space of fantasy, sci-fi, and local and global urgencies and realities that converge??? by setting you and your work in the midst of his.

I don’t want to suggest Poor People’s TV Room is strictly an African space. It is a space in the imagination that is pulling from my ideas of certain cities in Nigeria. There are certain ways of organizing familial spaces and the social hierarchies of familial spaces that we’re working with. Obviously, what is forgotten, what are we forgetting as we build from imagination. This is a piece where I have, as a first generation Igbo Nigerian woman growing up in Bronx, pulled from all of that. There is African space and African American space. I’m building something from the imaginary and exteriorizing internal spaces. I’m also thinking about Nollywood and ways of seeing related to screens and projections. What can you see, what can‘t you see. Obscuring. Using plastic that obscures bodies as a way of playing with what is enacted on ‘this other side.’

Ah. The idea of “other sides” is so compelling. Upside/downs, parallels, beyond the veils – all the simultaneous energies beside us that we are separated from, but they’re transmitting at us.

Photo by Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Right. In pre-Christian Igbo, when you go, when you do go, you don’t go to a place that can’t be accessed. The dead are occupying a space in the world of the living, they’re reaching out to the living and we get signals from them, they return. There’s a sense also that, in pre-Christian space, there is active reincarnation. People have names that are translated as “the father has returned.” These are discrete spaces separated by a transparent veil, the border is porous. You can reach them, you give libations to help them live and by remembering them you are keeping them in some kind of proximity, keeping them alive. All of these things we’re playing with in Poor People’s TV Room.


But there is also protest as a practice in there too, yes?

The early research is around women’s resistance and embodied protest practices. That might involve stripping naked to shame the person or the group the protests were directed against or building songs of collective grievance. In seeing the growing resistance movement, the work of unmasking and surfacing the ongoing and systemic violence used to discipline communities of colors. Resistance movements spearheaded by women, where so many women have been putting their bodies in front of the state to interrupt business as usual, speak to a kind of critical embodiment, if in the dominant cultural and public space, women are still regressively valued and defined by the productive capacity of their bodies—producing desire, producing children, producing domestic labor to support the economic output of men—these resistance movements, to me, signify, women engaging in acts of radical repossession.  These traditions seem to extend through the Black Lives Matter Movement back to the Civil Rights Movement back to W. Africa and S. Africa and reflect the radical ways women used their bodies to serve as interruptors of state violence, to rally against the forces that posed an existential threat to their lives.

Wow. That’s so valuable to remember that lineage of protest practices here in the US as tied directly to the fights women in parts of Africa have modeled.

I’m very interested in those linkages. In thinking about the “Bring Back Our Girls,” and meme-culture, it is interesting that the women, someone like a former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division [Oby Ezekwesili] originally said “Bring back our girls.” Women were asking government to get off their butts and find these girls [over 270 girls were kidnapped from their school by “Boko Haram” in Nigeria. Nearly 200 are still missing as we very recently passed the 3rd anniversary.] But, in meme culture, the original is always erased. This movement was spearheaded by African women, then meme culture gives it a global presence and the originating agents of change were disappeared and erased. What’s fantastic is that it gives a larger presence and urgency to the problem of this missing girls, at least initially. And this erasure is true and inherent in meme culture always, but in this case, it also reflects the strategy of the dominant western culture to shape a singular, savior narrative that relies on the erasure of acts of agency and acts of self-agency by African women in this instance. I’m not an activist, I am not making a piece explicitly ‘about’ this, but this concern is a layer in the piece, of trying to resist invisibility, the impossibility of resisting invisibility and moments of radically bringing our bodies together. That’s the stuff. We want to make a space in performance and in a venue that leaves room for complicated readings and transformations of brown and black bodies in a space. We want to make a space of multiple questions. How can we perform in this dynamic space of becoming?

Right? I’m working on an installation performance for late May that uses plastic bags and looks at disposability and disposable bodies. What bodies matter? Esp. in the current crises of refugees, it pulls from my familial ties to Vietnamese refugees and the idea of bodies adrift, now like all of the plastic debris filling the oceans.

Yeah, what happens to bodies if their use has been done. In Igbo culture, you want to be useful – you have to be useful to some degree. To not be useful is the end. The bodies adrift have been rendered by a larger society of having no use. I was reading this article about people crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. The Nigerian economy is driven by oil and as the price of oil continued to drop in 2016, the naira collapsed and that placed people already living at a subsistence level in an untenable situation, and these are the folks in the south, not the folks in the North fleeing Boko Haram. They are economic migrants. So, they’d make this crossing. They’d get to Libya, coming through the desert and ECOWAS region and there are thousands of young girls being sex trafficked, and people  indiscriminately shot, if they don’t have money to pay smugglers, if in some way they are determined to have exhausted their usefulness. It’s like the plastic we dispose and get rid of. We might re-use or repurpose it for awhile, but at some point that plastic is riven with little holes and scratches and must be thrown away, burned usually. This article reminds us that we are still living in a time where there are bodies (particularly of migrants, of people devastatingly and desparated poor) being used as plastic, divested of humanity and used as a raw resource until they have been riddled with physical and psychic ruptures that render them “unreusable” and so they are either murdered or they must set themselves adrift, across the Meditarranean. There are stories of young Nigerian women who are raped or sell themselves to try to make money to pay smugglers to get to the coast of Libya, but at $2 client, owing $1000 of dollars they are stuck in an unending cycle. In one instance, the article recounts an episode of a young girl shot in the head in broad daylight after having an argument with a client-this is a hell—this disposability.

It’s horrifying and it makes it seem insurmountable to battle all of these forces that are meant to keep girls and women as disposable resources, invisible.

And we have stories that surface about those who, under insurmountable odds, go on to reach tremendous success. But, those stories should not erase the systems and structures that are make that those success stories the exception – not the rule. They lift themselves up from poverty and pain to find happiness and success. That’s the story, not the systems in place and governments that make it impossible for citizens to survive – without access to water and sanitation. The story is always about the one out of hundreds of thousands who get in touch with the right NGO person or an engineering savant who builds an irrigation system out of bits and pieces reclaimed from some trash heap.

Right, this is that “insidious individualism” that Angela Davis talks about in her critique of capitalism. The stories of the amazing individual keep us from believing in our little selves as agents of change. Turning individuals into the face of entire movements keeps us from understanding the work of movements.

Yes, those kinds of histories ignore and erase what it takes to build a movement. No one person creates and leads alone. Focusing on the exceptional individual erases the rallying and preparing. It wasn’t just that just one day that Rosa Parks did that and suddenly we have a bus boycott. There was preparation for that action years in the making amid discussions of ways to challenge the system of segregation in Alabama. That work requires planning. In The Women’s War in Nigeria, the colonizers called it the “Aba Women’s Riots”, language to suggest it was some impromptu, unorganized  action spurred on by the heat of the moment, because to use the language that the woman used themselves, to call it a “war” would be to acknowledge that the organized strategic act of a worthy adversary. Language diminishes and erases. I also want to say that the indigenous people also called the action the Women’s Egwu. In Igbo, that “egwu” means dance. And maybe for me, that is also a signal, that the women and the people of this southeastern area tied it linguistically, they tied this resistance, this protest to performance.

Poor People’s TV Room runs April 19-22 and 26-29 at 7:30pm at New York Lives Arts, 219 West 19th Street, NYC. For tickets and information, call 212 924 0077 or visit newyorklivearts.

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