Phantom of the Oprah

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

“THERE WAS A TIME—way, way back—when Oprah was a human being, just a woman, she felt pain and she suffered. She felt fear and desire.”

So begins the storytelling in Poor People’s TV Room, a performance conceived by Okwui Okpokwasili, coauthored, designed, and directed in collaboration with Peter Born. Part theater, part dance, part installation, the piece hovers in an undefined space and time, conjuring the stories of four women: Merit (Katrina Reid), Madame (Okpokwasili), Honor (Thule Dumakude), and Yeru (Nehemoyia Young). From the grand tales of Oprah’s origin myth to the intimate gossip about one another; from stories about children and mothers and others who are no longer present to the descriptions of violence and death and T-shirts bearing slogans, the world they speak of is at once tender and viperous.

The performance is composed almost like a piece of music, in sections and phrases—monologues that erupt, dialogues that echo. The staging is split in two: Yeru and Honor sit on outdoor chairs, chatting with each other, sometimes repeating one another’s words in a way that sounds incantatory, if static. In her living room, Madame fusses and fights with Merit, her house girl, seeing things, lashing out at her young minder though she thrives by suckling at her bare breast. Words are heavy always, passed as wisdom and as weight—and they are not always to be trusted. As the radiant and exquisite Honor warns in a vivid, seething monologue:

I want to pry open your mouth—wide. I want to look deep in your throat. I know I’ll find a lie in there. I will go in there and I will grab that lie and I will drag it up across your tongue and out of your mouth. And I will stomp it into the truth.

Okpokwasili is a powerhouse artist with a molten presence on stage: steely, ever fluid. In Bronx Gothic, her 2014 solo piece that was recently adapted for film, she delivered intimate correspondences between two girls in the early bloom of adolescence and sexuality as she shivered and shook, as though she was the medium—the receiver—through which this tale must pass. Although her voice shifted registers as she spoke as one girl and then as the other, Okpokwasili bypassed the usual expressions of character, of literal embodiment, to locate the story somewhere nearer to the realm of phantoms. The words were all hers—she wrote the play, based on her own childhood—but her besieged body seemed to mark the distances through the thick muck of memory that her words had to travel to leave her mouth.

The spirit-characters of Poor People’s TV Room are embodied more firmly, forthrightly, though they’re not always clearly defined. The four women appear before us as something closer to visitations, materializing between the conditions of presence and absence, their voices alighting across song and stories, their bodies bearing burdens. At the top of the play, a woman covered in a blanket crawls across the stage; nearby, another dances before an opaque scrim, behind which we see another dancing too, her body blurred—we can just make out shape and color and movement through the plastic film.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Video also places these bodies apart from us, gives their absence/presence another dimension. In a beautiful, classic piece of stagecraft, a large table becomes a second stage on which Okpokwasili and Reid play the scenes between Madame and Merit while lying on their backs. With a video camera hanging overhead, and the tabletop decorated with wallpaper, a chair, and a window, the performers pose as though the room were “real,” upright. On the screen suspended above, we watch them, projected into this other space, with tiny slips of visual sense—Okpokwasili’s dress falling between her legs, the way both performers lean against the “wall”—to note that their image bears a different gravity than the rest of the room.

In some respects, Poor People’s TV Room is most directly about power and speech, via language and movement. How do words conjure the world, manifest our destinies and our selves, infuse earthbound lives with both the levity and heaviness of myth? What do bodies say, what do they know and hold, that can be read or heard or understood—or denied, destroyed? Okpokwasili and Born make no sharp point about all of this, though their source materials are rich and devastating: the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement/meme; the Igbo Women’s War of 1929; suicide bombings in the public markets of Northern Nigeria, often young women detonating themselves spurred on by the Boko Haram.

These subjects aren’t made explicit except in glimmers—we hear what sounds like the remixed recordings of women’s voices, the rhythms of their clapping hands and stomping feet—which is a shame since these are women and stories that rarely appear inside a New York theater. The piece is designed to be haunting, not altogether legible, yet it feels in some respects unresolved, like its central force hasn’t yet been fully harnessed. Its many facets mesmerize—the women are all marvelous to watch, and moment-to-moment there are resonant ideas, and graceful gestures—but the abstractions aren’t counterbalanced by even light anchors to orient and pull us through the whirl to a place we might come to know with greater clarity.

And yet the show throughout imparted a deep feeling of how bodies share parts of each other with one another, how they sustain, how they connect: with mother’s milk, with breath, with stories—and with theater. At one point, Okpokwasili sings in her rich, beautiful voice:

I’m irradiated
I’m illuminated
I’m intoxicated
I’m emblazoned
I won’t loosen this thread, no
I will wind it tighter
I will bind us closer
I will knot us up…
Don’t leave a wound tonight.

Standing there before us, channeling radical self-possession (and radical other-possession too), though belied by something grievous, she appeared to be singing to and for us, her audience, leaving no wound, but opening us to and for something more and more and more.

Poor People’s TV Room premiered at New York Live Arts from April 19-22 and 26-29. Andrew Rossi’s film Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s 2014 performance, premieres July 12 through 25 at Film Forum in New York.