Art

Oprah and Oppression in MCA’s Poor People’s TV Room

Nehemoyia Young and Thudi Dumakude in Okwui Okpokwasili’s “Poor People’s TV Room” Photo by Ian Douglas

Oprah is a leitmotif in the multimedia movement narrative Poor People’s TV Room, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art from April 12-15.

United States Artist Fellow Okwui Okpokwasili and director-designer Peter Born have devised a remembrance of and reflection on two events in Nigeria’s history: 1929’s Women’s War and the kidnapping of more than 270 girls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Four strong yet vulnerable Black women integrate repetitive motions, music, monologue and dialogue to illuminate “poverty, marginalization, oppression and the bad luck of their birthplace” in this 90-minute piece.

The stage (designed by Born) is sparse: a stage right plastic curtain separating dancer Katrina Reid, the catalyst, from her perverse, topless twin Okpokwasili, a theme also explored in the story of cutting off a vestigial tail that grows a new human when discarded – what can grow from pain, what part of our real or perceived ugliness is mirrored in the world.

There’s a platform upstage left with a sitting room of horizontal lamps and the titular TV on its back that the audience sees upright on a screen, projecting off-kilter tableaux as actors crawl into chairs to chat and nurse and look out a painted window.

Thudi Dumakude, the sitter, the elder, speaks the first words, “There was a time, way, way back, when Oprah was a human being,” a recurring tale of the deification of a daughter of the diaspora.

She also likens a lie to a cobra, which she “will stomp into the truth,” another undercurrent in the production, of women wrangling circumstances in their damaged lives.

Nehemoyia Young, the youth with braids piled high on her head, comes in crawling under burlap, emerging to question her senior in plastic lawn chairs when not echoing the staccato, trembling, choreography of resilience to violence (also by Okpokwasili).

The conceit is riveting, engaging, perverse. The product is difficult to unpack, perhaps on purpose, as female subjugation and resilience is one of the oldest stories ever told. But Black women as the shepherds of the past, and the faces of the future couldn’t be more timely.

The morphing mélange of dance and dialogue is interspersed with songs by lovely voices, particularly by Okpokwasili, that offer fresh feminist, cradle-of-civilization commentary on the Bring Back Our Girls movement, exhuming and examining continental history – what has always happened to females, what is happening to them now and what they do about it.

Okwui Okpokwasili by New York Live Arts

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