"Poor People's TV Room," by Okwui Okpokwasili at On the Boards through Dec. 9, filters three cultural currents (the anti-colonial Women's War of 1929 in Nigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls movement and the fantastic fame of Oprah) into a haunting, ghostly four-person performance.
Okwui Okpokwasili isn’t fond of beginnings.
“As a performer, there’s something about ‘the beginning’ I always feel weird about,” she said and laughed. The shopworn ritual of an audience member negotiating her way through a theater lobby and into her seat, waiting for the lights to go down and signal (in Okpokwasili’s words) “now it’s time to pay attention” — that, to her, has always rung a little false. So do performances that seem too tidy, too pat, too neatly tied up in a bow.
“As an audience member, I want to feel like there’s some mystery, some part of the piece that hasn’t been solved by the creator or maker,” she said. “I want to feel like part of it is just mine, to have my own thoughts and experiences — as long as you feel like there’s some rigor.”
This might explain why Okpokwasili (a freshly minted MacArthur “genius” fellow who grew up in the Bronx to Nigerian-immigrant parents, and spent her early career performing with experimental-performance big shots like Young Jean Lee and Ralph Lemon) tends to begin her work quietly, perhaps in the corner of a room swathed in plastic sheeting and subtle lighting effects, before the first audience member even walks through the door.
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“Hopefully, we’re shaping a molecular, psychic space in the room,” she said. “The engine is going and going and the audience is hopefully like: ‘Am I ready to be in the car now?’ We charge the air, charge the room, to get in there with useful confusion — just get that ready.”
Like her earlier work “Bronx Gothic” (which made New York critics swoon), “Poor People’s TV Room,” which will be performed at Seattle’s On the Boards just through this weekend, is a tricky thing to describe, even for Okpokwasili. “If I’m going to say the piece is ‘about’ anything, which I doubt it is,” she said, “it’s about how we piece together fragments to try to build some kind of coherent narrative about yourself.”
More concretely, Okpokwasili described “Poor People’s TV Room” as a kind of dream space, made of four performers, delicate lighting effects and membranes of plastic sheeting. It riffs off major protest movements in Nigerian history (the 1929 Women’s War, the #BringBackOurGirls movement against kidnappings of schoolgirls by Islamist separatists in Boko Haram) and the TV thrall of projected identity (specifically, Oprah Winfrey).
The performers sit, dance and talk among the plastic sheeting (a nod to the ubiquity of plastic in Nigeria, which Okpokwasili described as “used and reused” for roofing, windows, water-carrying containers) that, like everything in the performance, sometimes reveals and sometimes obscures. One story among the women begins: “There was a time — way, way back — when Oprah was a human being, just a woman, she felt pain and she suffered.”
Descriptions of “Poor People’s TV Room” can sound ephemeral and hazy, but the work is rooted in reality and research. If some ineffable detail in the performance catches your attention, you can bet Okpokwasili (and her designer-husband Peter Born) could talk about it for hours. The work, developed over years, is a wispy, whispering labyrinth.
For example: The title “Poor People’s TV Room” comes from “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” a novel by Igbo-Nigerian author Okey Ndibe, about a New York taxi driver who goes to Nigeria to steal a statue with supernatural powers to sell to a New York gallery owner. He meets a childhood friend who’s become a wealthy and corrupt public figure. The narrator asks the friend what he’s done for people in their village (because, as Okpokwasili explains in one of her habitual asides, traditional Igbo status is defined not only by the wealth one has, but the wealth one gives away — hoarding is unbecoming). The friend points to his “poor people’s TV room,” where men can sit in an air-conditioned space and watch old basketball videos with Michael Jordan highlights. In a country with unreliable electricity, that is his form of philanthropy.
“The power of the TV is a space of aspirational thinking as you sit and project yourselves into the bodies of Michael Jordan or Oprah,” Okpokwasili said. “But the TV room is also a space of inertia, where you could potentially never leave, locked in the ether of those images. I thought that was an interesting space.”
Another example: the Oprah-as-deity theme. “Oprah is a figure of incredible power and resilience,” Okpokwasili said. “But she is also queen of the market. In pre-colonial Igbo culture, people call it a patriarchy, but the women controlled the market, chose the roads that would be most fortuitous for a market that moved every week and men were tasked with clearing them.”
The market, she explained, gave women special leverage in Igbo culture. But the market is also a place of exclusion and exploitation. “The market is complicated,” she said. “It’s a place of great inequality and abuse and corruption, but also gave some women who were without power some other power. And in America, of course, the market is everything. So Oprah looms large in the imagination of not just Americans, but Africans … like any world where there’s a god, not everybody goes around talking about god all the time. But this is a slice of a moment in the lives of these four women where we see the power of Oprah.”
Other examples: the potential “ghosts” of ancestors in our bodies, the Igbo spiritual notion of a permeable space between the living and the dead (the plastic sheeting has something to do with that), how a living person can fall into another realm (say, the spirit world, or the TV) and may or may not come back — clearly, “Poor People’s TV Room” is a basket of signifiers and daisy chains of associations.
But, Okpokwasili said, we shouldn’t overthink it.
Is there one thing Okpokwasili would tell the unsuspecting layperson walking into the theater, one thing that audience member — who knows nothing about the 1929 Women’s War, the conflicted power of Igbo marketplaces, the permeable membrane between us and the spirit world — should hold in her brain while settling into her seat, as the performance has, technically, already begun?
Okpokwasili laughed again. “Just relax. Just sink into it. Don’t worry.”
“Poor People’s TV Room” by Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born, through Dec. 9; On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $10-$70; 206-217-9886, ontheboards.org