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  WINDY CITY TIMES

DANCIN' FEATS Talking with performer Okwui Okpokwasili
by Joanna Furnans
2018-03-28

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Some people think in definitives. They synthesize the complicated world around them into neatly packaged conclusions and then state those conclusions with authority. The three-time Bessie Award-winning dancer, writer and performance maker Okwui Okpokwasili is not one of those people.

"I'm not looking for answers," said Okpokwasili in a recent interview with the Windy City Times. "I'm looking for a way to keep generating questions."

Next month, Chicagoans have the opportunity to witness a performance of such questioning when Okpokwasili and her collaborator husband, Peter Born, bring their newest work, "Poor People's TV Room," to the Museum of Contemporary Art ( Thurs-Sat, April 12-14, 7:30 p.m.; Sun April 15, 2 p.m.; MCAChicago.org/Calendar ), 220 E. Chicago Ave.

This piece premiered a year ago at New York Live Arts, where Okpokwasili was the esteemed Randjelovic/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist during 2015-2017. For those unfamiliar with such a distinction, the Randjelovic/Stryker Residency provides one invited artist a salary, health benefits, two years of rehearsal/residency space and the commission of a new work—an award relatively unparalleled in the United States. In addition, "Poor People's TV Room" was co-commissioned by the American Dance Institute and the Walker Art Center and was granted funding from Creative Capitol, the MAP Fund, the New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It doesn't get much better than this, especially for an experimental dance artist. Okpokwasili has a long history as a performer/collaborator with choreographers Ralph Lemon, Dean Moss and Nora Chipaumire as well as acting credits on both stage and screen. She was even featured in a recent Jay-Z video.

But it is specifically her probing multidisciplinary work that garners such deserved attention from contemporary performance communities. "Bronx Gothic," the 2014 tour de force solo performance—also co-directed and designed by Born—was a gut-wrenching and poetic story of two Black pre-teen girls learning to navigate their young lives amidst desire and violence. The work was also an investigation of memory and an excavation and transmission of self.

Okpokwasili continues to ask questions central to the themes in "Bronx Gothic" in the making of "Poor People's TV Room." She said, "I feel like 'Bronx Gothic' is a solo unwinding of a woman trying to come to terms with a splintered self. 'Poor People's TV Room' still has to do with different sorts of uncovering memory but it involves four Black women and has a generational span that tries to investigate who we are to each other...

"I'm always interested in memory making and how that might make a self. And what has to be undone and redone in order to have some kind of cohesive self. Or is it okay to learn to have to live with the fracture and splintering, to find a way to have some comfort in the confusion and the unknown?"

So the questioning continues. Like many works of contemporary performance, the initial spark of creative intrigue leads to extensive research that, once explored with performers, morphs in a new direction. "Poor People's TV Room" began with an investigation of a remarkable history of protest by Nigerian women, specifically the Women's War of 1929 and the more recent "Bring Back Our Girls" movement. Herself the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Okpokwasili explained that she was "thinking about what it means to be a collective and about embodied protest practices and how some of those practices were very much like performance. I guess most protest practices are a kind of public performance. [They are] an attempt to project a voice, to make a space to make an essential utterance."

With that information in mind, Okpokwasili and Born gathered collaborators—performers Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young—to begin exploring how they might relate to one another and what their collective voice could become. "The piece itself moved into something much more dreamlike as it got into the specifics of how our bodies imprint or mark on each other," she said. "We brought these women together, we had some text and some sound and some things that we were thinking about as we were considering what it meant to have these histories that were lost or that felt unrecoverable in some practical way. So [the question was] how do we make a space of generosity where we are inviting and imploring them to show us who they are?"

If this piece is anything like her previous work, audiences should expect to be steeped in an environment, both mysterious and precise, that transports our psyches through time and space to different dimensions of these women's histories and realities. There will be moments of enlightenment and moments of pain; this is not dance as entertainment. And why should it be?

For tickets to "Poor People's TV Room" and information about a screening of Andrew Rossi's documentary "Bronx Gothic," visit MCAChicago.org/Calendar .


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