'Poor People’s TV Room' remembers Nigeria's powerful legacy of female activism

Okwui Okpokwasili

Okwui Okpokwasili

Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room takes on women’s resistance movements in Nigeria, from the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 to the recent Boko Haram kidnappings’ #BringBackourGirls campaign.

In her research of the 1929 Women’s War, where thousands of women came together to fight the injustices of the colonial government, Okpokwasili was struck by one particular means of protest, which involved older women being naked.

“Among the Igbo people, it was common for young women to go about half naked. But after you were married, you were covered,” she says. “For older women to uncover themselves was basically a taboo act.”

During this time, women would sing extensive songs that delineated all the troubles of the country, and why certain administrators of the government were problematic.

“There were all these really powerful acts that made me think of collective action as a kind of bodily intervention, as a kind of performance,” says Okpokwasili.

They called the action “egwu” in the Igbo language, which actually means “dance.”

“I thought, ‘How interesting that linguistically this collective act of protest was tied to performance, or acknowledged as performance to some degree,’” Okpokwasili says.

Okpokwasili describes her piece as durational. She began working on it while thinking about the #BringBackOurGirls movement and what she felt was an erasure of the legacy of advocacy among southern Nigerian women.

“I was looking around for a kind of narrative,” she says. “The #BringBackOurGirls thing was interesting. It took off on a hashtag life that made this tragedy alive and made it visible for people -- which is great -- but then I also felt a lot of the women that started that hashtag disappeared and they happened to be Nigerian women.”

While Okpokwasili shies away from describing her work as activism, she notes that at this time in our political climate as Trump is about to assume the presidency, the urgency of amplifying marginalized voices is more important than ever.

“This kind of feels like an unprecedented moment, where certain voices are going to get shut out of conversations where they’ve just started getting into,” she says. “Having a multitude of voices and a multitude of difference is also a significant and important thing."

For the performance, Okpokwasili collaborates with her husband, Peter Born, with whom she’s been creating work with for 20 years. The two wrote the piece together, as well as the sound score. Born also creates the space and lighting, with input from from Okpokwasili. Since Okpokwasili performs in the piece, she relies on Born to be her outside eye.

“If I’m performing, I need someone to argue with,” she says. “He’s my chief collaborator, resident arguer.”



Poor People’s TV Room
Part of the Out There experimental theater series
8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
Walker Art Center