Nora Chipaumire doesn’t just make dance works; her work provokes many sensibilities. In her latest, “Portrait of Myself as My Father” (September 14-17) at BAM Fisher as part of the 2016 Next Wave Festival, the Zimbabwe-born Chipaumire is joined by Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack) from Senegal and Shamar Watt from Jamaica. Each is intoxicating as they transform the space, champion their characters and bring the audience into their world. Word surely spread because each evening there were long lines of hopeful patrons vying for a ticket to the sold-out performances. “Portrait” is informed by Chipaumire’s Zimbabwean father, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, born in 1938 and died in 1980, and with whom Chipaumire had no connection after age 5. Brilliantly imbedded in the work are myriad stories that excavate conscious and unconscious stereotypes of Black manhood—“Black lives have always mattered,” Chipaumire would later say.
Pulling on the cord of her announcer’s microphone, clad in football shoulder pads, knickers and African gris-gris adorning her waist, Chipaumire asks, “Are you ready?”
A boxing ring sits in the middle of the space. In one corner of the ring, Kaolack reclines on a stool. Watt moves from corner to corner, repositioning intensely bright halogen work lights. The audience was provided sunglasses to offset the glare of the lights if they wanted to. When it was time to begin, a really pumped Chipaumire said, “Let’s go!”
The hourlong discourse on African masculinity shifts between movement and conversation. The halogen lights direct the audience to follow Chipaumire and Kaolack, who spend most of the time tethered together in the ring, while Watt, the instigator, the supporter, the hype man, circles ringing a bell and blowing a high-pitched whistle. “Yo Black,” “Midnight Black,” “Chocolate Black,” Chipaumire calls out as Kaolack slowly rises to cross in deliberately laboring steps, all the while with a deep and nearly inaudible growl. “Attends, j’arrive” (wait, I’m coming), “Put your hands up,” “Free the African from his swagger,” she continues. Then, checking in with the audience, she asks rhetorically, “How do you become a man?” She then follows with examples from 1 to 10: Number 1—a slow walk with a slight buckling and recovering of the hip and knee (the “swagger”); number 6—“swing your hips from side to side”; number 10—“act like you are the King”; and so on.
In only one instance, in the ring, they dance in unison carrying umbrellas to a recording of the 10 steps and a power-packed delivery of The Roots’ “Step Into the Realm.” The crowd roared. Later, when Chipaumire and Kaolack ready themselves from their respective corners for a big encounter, there were more bouts of raucous applause. Watt hypes them to cheer Chipaumire: “The time is now champion…You can do it champion…You’ve got the power, champion,” and on tip toes, Chipaumire circles the ring. “What’s my name?” she asks, pauses, and then responds with, “chocolate thunder.” It’s Kaolack’s turn and Chipaumire hypes the crowd, directing Kaolack: “Put your hands up, nigger. Fight. Run. You can’t fight, you better learn how to run, you can’t run, you better learn how to [expletive].”
In and out of the ring, Kaolack and Watt run passionately from corner to corner until the lights go out. When the lights come back, Kaolak is on Chipaumire’s back, and a soft shadow glows on the wall behind them. Clearly emotional, Chipaumire says, “This is a manifesto … about my father … [he] died with zero … I carry the carcass of my father.” In 2016, nearly 80 years after Wester Barnabas Chipaumire was born, so many stories resemble his. Here’s to his daughter’s opening cry: “To life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”