At this weekend's Out There performance, there are no wrong interpretations


Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room challenges the audience on multiple levels.

It contains truths, but truths told elliptically. It’s full of language, but the language is fragmented. There’s movement, but the movement is often repetitive and almost wrapped in upon itself. It’s a piece that demands intellectual engagement, but you also shouldn’t try to overthink it. You just have to take it in. While you, the person on your right, and the person on your left all might come away with different interpretations of the piece, none of you are likely to forget it.

Okpokwasili performs the piece — a Walker Art Center commission now being presented as part of the Out There series — with three additional performers, black women who span generations (Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, Nehemoyia Young). The McGuire Theater stage is set with what at first looks like a surrealist installation: two chairs on a sheet of mirrored plastic, other furniture suspended above a horizontal wall that’s itself lifted on a platform above the stage.

The artist herself is onstage as the audience enters, performing a dance behind a tall translucent sheet as she gazes into a light that casts her half-naked body in sharp contrast. (Like a lot of things in Poor People’s TV Room, this is a signifier but it’s not immediately clear what’s being signified.) The other performers are moving elsewhere onstage, and as the lights go down, Dumakude stands and starts to tell a story: a legend about how Oprah became immortal.

Wait...what? Yep, just go with it. Oprah means many things to many people, but here she’s referenced as a godlike figure. She’s observed (by the characters in the piece, not by us) on the TV in the eponymous room, which takes on a new aspect when we see a projection of a view from a camera suspended above the stage.

From the camera’s perspective, the seemingly flying furniture is arranged in the room conventionally; Okpokwasili and other performers “enter” the room by crawling up from underneath the wall or laying down atop it, and from the camera’s view they seem to be standing painfully plastered against the wall.

It’s a visual metaphor, another dramatic element that doesn’t have an obvious interpretation. As the show unfolds — in story, in song, in drama, and with near-constant dance — themes emerge. Love, loss, confusion, struggle. The most specific referents evoke the experiences of West African women; Okpokwasili is Nigerian-American, and one of her primary inspirations for this piece was the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. Maternity is a theme of Poor People’s TV Room, but so is filiality.

In an interview for the Walker’s website, Okpokwasili says that one of her previous works “started to feel like a shrine.” Though Poor People’s TV Room, co-written and directed with Peter Born, functions more like a conventional piece of theater than some of Okpokwasili’s previous work, there’s still a ritual-like sense to it, and by its conclusion you understand that your subjective experience is part of the piece’s objective truth.