With the ongoing kidnappings of hundreds of Nigerian girls by the jihadist militant group Boko Haram, media coverage
of the country’s female population often focuses on victims rather than fighters. Choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili wants to change that narrative to highlight how women have banded together to take action throughout history. Poor People’s TV Room
is a new multimedia piece from Okpokwasili and director-designer Peter Born that takes inspiration from two major events: the Boko Haram kidnappings and the Women’s War of 1929, a revolt against British colonial forces.
“The piece isn’t a documentary of these past movements, but it led me to think about the power of embodied actions and collectivity in performance,” says Okpokwasili. “Working with a cast of black and brown women, I wanted to see what happens in the room given certain prompts and thinking about the histories that are lost to us and how we recover them.”
Raised in the United States, Okpokwasili has ancestral roots in Nigeria, and she’s fascinated by how women have shaped resistance in that country. “Around the time that Boko Haram had stolen that first set of girls, I was interested in saying, ‘Wait a minute. This Bring Back Our Girls movement is taking off, but we’re leaving behind the first people who started it.’ The first person who uttered that language was the former vice president of the African World Bank, [Obiageli Ezekwesili], a woman addressing mothers of the victims of the kidnappings in northern Nigeria.”
Okpokwasili sees that activist spirit reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement, which similarly has women stepping up to fight injustice and oppression. “Black Lives Matter was taking off right after that,” says Okpokwasili. “After Michael Brown’s death, and Eric Garner, and the results of the trial of George Zimmerman after the death of Trayvon Martin. We were seeing in real time this burgeoning and growing collective action that is largely led by women.”
Poor People’s TV Room
explores these themes of resistance and unity through a mix of song, text, film, and choreography: Okpokwasili dances with three women from different generations. Dance represents a different kind of collective action, but there’s a connection between performance and protest in the Igbo language.
“The Women’s War in 1929 was also called the Women’s Egwu, and egwu
means “dance” in Igbo,” says Okpokwasili. “This idea of performance and dance is linguistically tied to protest, and that’s really interesting because these protests are about becoming visible. What we have found in this piece is this space to contend with how we are imprinting on each other. How do we share these memories, how do we hold each other up, and how do we make worlds together?”
Poor People's TV Room 4/12-4/15: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010, mcachicago.org, $10-$30.