The energy of collectivity flows through new dance work by Okwui Okpokwasili

PITTSFIELD — Bessie Award-winning choreographer/performer/writer Okwui Okpokwasili began her work on "Poor People's TV Room" with a question.

"What are historical moments of collective action among women, particularly African women, that contradict what seems to be a western narrative of their victimhood or disempowerment?" Okpokwasili recalled during a recent telephone interview with The Eagle.

The 90-minute piece, which Okpokwasili and three other women will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, consequently draws inspiration from two events in Nigerian history: the Women's War of 1929 and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign following Boko Haram's kidnapping of 276 female students in 2014. Yet, Okpokwasili, who was raised in New York City by Nigerian immigrant parents, cautions against searching for too much of a connection between the multidisciplinary presentation and those historical moments. Instead, the focus should be on "the energy of collectivity."

"I was really interested in what is the creative engine in collectivity, the creative possibilities in a collective action, that isn't necessarily directly related to protest movements or trying to have some kind of appreciable and measurable effect on legislation, but what is it to be with each other in a shared moment and a shared body," she said.

To examine this nuance through performance, Okpokwasili and co-creator Peter Born use film, song, narrative and dance. Lighting and medium changes rapidly shift perspectives, evoking a feverish dream-like state. After taking in the work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in March, The Boston Globe's Karen Campbell mentioned multiple stories that stuck with her.

"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," Campbell wrote.

Dumakude is a celebrated Broadway performer and singer-songwriter from South Africa. Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young also join Okpokwasili onstage. Aside from the occasional tweak related to logistics, the evolution of "Poor People's TV Room" since its 2014 debut primarily stems from the performers' deepening relationship to the work.

"I'm sensing in the women that we work with, who are also our collaborators in building the movement gestures of the piece," Okpokwasili said, "I'm feeling that they're even sinking into it and having journeys that are mysterious to me or that they share with me every now and then."

Okpokwasili's recent works have been sources of intrigue. In 2014, she won a Bessie Award for her solo show, "Bronx Gothic," about two young women growing up in the borough. It drew raves for, among other things, its frank exploration of sexuality. The piece, and Okpokwasili's creative process, is the subject of Andrew Rossi's documentary, "Bronx Gothic."

Last April, the 45-year-old visited Mass MoCA to perform a new work in Nick Cave's "Until" exhibit space.

"I wanted the exhibit to tell me what to do to some degree, but of course, what it told me to do was very much in keeping with the work I had been doing already," Okpokwasili said. "We work a lot with shadows and the sense of a presence that might be around but kind of emerges, that might subtly emerge. I was thinking about the metaphorical place of the bush in eastern Nigeria, particularly among Ibo people in pre-colonial tradition, the bush as a place where the line between the living and dead is quite porous."

In addition to Nigerian history, Nollywood films have influenced the work that brings Okpokwasili back to Mass MoCA Saturday.

"This is a very specific Nigerian industry of cultural production, making people visible, making themselves visible to say, 'OK, the western narrative is not the only narrative and doesn't necessarily hold the space that we want to hold. We can tell stories to each other,'" she said.

The work's title, however, comes from literature. In "Foreign Gods, Inc." by Okey Ndibe, a wealthy man in an impoverished village maintains a room on the edge of his property for poor people to consume TV. They watch Michael Jordan highlights repeatedly.

"I thought it was really powerful there's this aspirational quality but then this inertia. They're not even watching current television. They're actually watching reruns. So, there's something about this particular room and the space of TV as a kind of a space to imagine something new for yourself but also to not ever really get out of that room," Okpokwasili said. "I just started to think of these locked-in stories. Our figures [in 'Poor People's TV Room'] are kind of locked in one story."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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