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‘Poor People’s TV Room’ explores Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago debuts “Poor People’s TV Room,” a performance by award-winning writer, dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili. “Poor People’s TV Room” is a kinetic exploration of collective action and resistance movements in Nigeria. The performance draws inspiration from an historical incident—the Boko Haram kidnappings of more than 300 girls in 2014—in order to unearth buried stories of the country’s women-led resistance campaigns. Okpokwasili performs with a cast of women from different generations, fusing choreography, song, text and film to build a potent study on society’s erasure of narratives of empowered women. In collaboration with director/designer Peter Born and blended with Okpokwasili’s contemporary dance aesthetic, “Poor People’s TV Room” crosses disciplines to make a visceral performance where the past is alive and unleashed. The performance runs from Thursday to Sunday, April 12 to 15, at the MCA Stage.

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SCENES FROM the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s “Poor People’s TV Room,” a performance by award-winning writer, dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili. Photos by Ian Douglas. 

One of Artforum’s Best of 2017, “Poor People’s TV Room” is performed by Okpokwasili with three brown women from different generations—Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young—who explore the use of the body in political and protest practices, contending with the meaning of their bodies in relation to each other. Collectively, they generate a multilayered performance with dance, music, and spoken word that plays with dualism of visibility and the ongoing presence of forgotten women.

In Okpokwasili’s inquiry into the Nigerian ‘Women’s War’ of 1929, a resistance against British colonial powers, she discovered the empowered role women had as administrators of the pre-colonial marketplace. Today, the suicide bombings in Northern Nigerian markets are often carried out by young women radicalized by Boko Haram, presenting a violent irony where young women are no longer keepers of the marketplace but threats to daily life. “Poor People’s TV Room” is grounded in how to recover the zeitgeist of these women-led resistance movements and uncover their lost histories. The ‘TV Room’ referenced in the work’s title is a space where that history is stored in the body—even after the mind has lost its ability to remember.

About Okwui Okpokwasili:

Okwui Okpokwasili is an award-winning New York-based writer, performer, and choreographer who creates genre-blending projects in collaboration with her artistic partner Peter Born. Their first New York production, “Pent-Up: A Revenge Dance” premiered at Performance Space 122 in 2010 and received a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production. Their second collaboration, “Bronx Gothic,” won a 2014 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production and continues to tour nationally and internationally. In June 2014, they presented an installation entitled “Bronx Gothic: The Oval” as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival. As a performer, Okpokwasili has collaborated with acclaimed director Ralph Lemon, including on “Come Home Charley Patton,” which won a Bessie Award, and most recently, “Scaffold Room.” She has also performed in Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam,” Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Kristin Marting’s “Sounding,” Young Jean Lee’s “LEAR,” Richard Foreman’s “Maria del Bosco,” and Richard Maxwell’s “Cowboys and Indians.”

Related Events:

Film Screening: “Bronx Gothic:”  Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m., $10 or free with ticket purchase to “Poor People’s TV Room.” “Bronx Gothic” is Andrew Rossi’s electrifying portrait of writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili and her acclaimed solo show of the same title. The film gives insight into Okpokwasili’s creative process and the complex social issues it embodies. Rooted in her childhood memories, audiences engage with a story about two 12-year-old Black girls coming of age in the 1980s. Chicago artists Brendan Fernandes, Darrell Jones and Amina Ross have a conversation on stage after the screening to talk about race and the process of making a live performance.

Ticket Information:

“Poor People’s TV Room” runs 90 minutes and takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday, April 12-14, with an additional 2 p.m. show on Sunday, April 15 with ASL interpretation and audio description. Tickets for the performances are $30 and are available at the MCA Box Office at 312.397.4010 or Purchasing a ticket for “Poor People’s TV Room” includes free admission to the April 22 screening of “Bronx Gothic.” MCA Chicago is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Touring support for “Poor People’s TV Room” is provided by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Accessible programming for “Poor People’s TV Room” is supported by artist/scholar Carrie Sandahl, director of “Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture” and faculty in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Lead support for the 2017-18 season of MCA Stage is provided by Elizabeth A. Liebman. Generous support is provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and The Eisen Family Foundation, Ginger Farley and Bob Shapiro, the Martha Struthers Farley and Donald C. Farley Jr. Family Foundation, Sharon and Lee Oberlander, Maya Polsky, Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund, Susan Manning and Doug Doetsch, D. Elizabeth Price and Lou Yecies, and Ms. Shawn M. Donnelley and Dr. Christopher M. Kelly. Additional generous support for MCA Stage is provided by Enact, the MCA’s performance affinity group. The MCA is a proud member of the Museums in the Park and receives major support from the Chicago Park District. Season support is provided by Alphawood Foundation. Hotel sponsorship provided by Residence Inn Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile.

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