by Emmanuel Iduma


︎   ︎

Okwui Okpokwasili

Imagine this text as a bouquet. Imagine that I place it in her hands after a performance.

She performs thrice in the course of an hour, in sequence, without pause. She sits on a high stool beside the stage, reading a story of itinerant ghosts in a Nigerian hinterland. On the stage a young girl is pacing, back and forth, back, and forth, holding a lamp—switching it on, and off, on and off. Afterimages fall from my eye. The light at once obscures and illumines the field of my vision. The entire theater, like a bad camera obscura, forms flitting images of the dancer and the girl. In each sequence, she stands from her reading stool and walks behind the young girl. Behind the young girl there is a barricade made from fabric, translucent bags. When she walks behind the barricade, her body, in the fierce redness of bright light, becomes amorphous. Her body takes no shape, and yet I can see it transform from shape to shape. Sometimes it seems like water overflowing its banks, as though she is tempestuous sea. Sometimes she becomes a snake, crawling on her belly. Sometimes her arms, suddenly visible, flays in protest, as if struggling to breathe when dumped in drowning sea. Sometimes her body tumbles like the wave of a giant blanket, covering my entire frame of sight—momentary blindness from too much light.

I first watched Okwui perform in downtown Brooklyn, an early version of Poor People’s TV. All these years later, what has returned my sight, these words, to me?

Words brash and insolent, sentences reposed or disquieted, they stay with me. I long for language not as comfort, not even as discomfort. A kind of home. The same way a traveling troubadour is content with walls made of translucent fabric. Words always make their way back. No etymology can say for certain all that a word testifies to, what journeys it has undertaken. To write a sentence in which this truth is revealed, a sentence that allows each part of the whole to do its fragmented work, as gestures are to a choreographer. The individual words then stumble into each other with something of a conflict to resolve, a hunch to test. Whether they agree or disagree is inconsequential. Imagine words fumbling for keys: they enter into the home of the sentence only to escape soon after, triggered by the memory of watching her perform. The words are often without shelter. They seek a home.

It’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westchester Square, East Bronx. In the delirium of possibility for what’s to come, my mind’s eye conceives of the steeple on the same plane as the crosses on the graves beside the church. Meaning is low hanging and within reach. Okwui had invited me, and my first feeling in the gothic-styled cathedral is of being recognized, undergirded by kinship to her, however distant our affinity. The audience has gathered in an anteroom, which is too small for us to mill about, only wait. I confuse elation with expectation. I would only know later why the sentiments are mismatched, just when I enter the auditorium. Already, her body is in view. Bronx Gothic has begun: She is seen from behind, wearing a gown with thin straps. Her movement is of a sort that is intense, vigorous, quaky, a tremble, a rapture, small moans escaping her lips. The crowd settles into silence, as if cautioned by her vigor. This is the mix of feeling I’d had, eager for all, but in doubt of the measure I’ll see. She turns to us. The rest of the evening she invokes voices from the past: Two little girls in dialogue about their bodies, about the fate of self in a world of assaults and racism, a world lacking in tender love. She makes me want to cry for all the bodies I cannot inhabit, for the first time I caused pain to a woman, being born. It is in how she looks at me, at all of us. Everyone has lived in the body of a woman, but men forget too easily. In the years since that final presentation of Bronx Gothic I have wondered about the manner of her glance while she performed. I have wondered—and this might sound preposterous—what to do with that glance. Return it? Under what circumstances and in what guise? To who?

I’ll stretch the lining of the present. Just as the soldier who, as Andrei Tarkovsky recounts, is walking around in circles. He and others are about to be shot for treason in front of the ranks, by a hospital wall. They have been ordered to take off their coats and boots. But the ground is full of puddles. So the condemned man spends a long time looking for a dry place to put down his coat and boots, wearing socks full of holes—coats and boots he would have no need for a few minutes later. Like this man I intend to honor what outlives a moment.

I recall my first conversation with Okwui, after Judy Hussie-Taylor—who wrote, “You share Nigeria”—put us in touch. “The words that mean the most to me now,” I said to her, “is ‘intimate stranger.’”

Half an hour later, one evening during my first visit to New Orleans, I realized I had walked in a circle. And as I became aware of that—coming again to the place from which I saw the arched, towering entrance to the Louis Armstrong Park, and a hint of the red plaque of Congo Square—I recognized a couple, dressed in flowing black. They weren’t new to me, even if foreign, and certainly not random. They were there at the beginning of my walk. Having made the same small journey with them, I was tempted to give in to cliché, and think of moments in this world when lives intersect, or when strangers take intimate notice of each other. I find that a trifling assumption, barely adequate. Let me consider a small, confined world, small in size, and proceeding in a delineated orbit. I look up and see that the couple does not notice me. Not now, not earlier.

Andrew Rossi has made Bronx Gothic into a film. I see it twice in the summer of 2017. On the first evening I go Okwui is there. The audience feels their way through it—laughter and applause, as well as the unmistakable sound of sniffles. It is a film of her life in the course of her tour of Bronx Gothic, a film about all she has given to the calling, all who keep her going, including her partner Peter Born and daughter Umechi and parents and mentors, and, on the most tender of occasions, all with whom she weeps. It is while I watch her weep on screen, and later that evening when young women surround her, that I understand what Anne Michaels writes, of the difference between crying and weeping. The semantics is insignificant, only the slight turn in a conversation when an onrush of emotion can no longer be kept from bursting. One moment she is talking to three young women, who speak of what clarity and focus she has brought to their lives, and the next moment they hold each other in a grand embrace, in tears. I realize too late that I have been caught off-guard by this show of sentiment. I fear that the women have taken notice of my sheepish, obtrusive glare. During the film I’d felt admitted, part of an audience of many, a proximate witness, an approximate stance. Now I am close, just not close enough.

Also, I remember this: For most of the time I spent with my friend alleged to have violated a little girl, I held him while he wept. He wouldn’t say much. The questions formed uneasily around my lips, like water gurgled but not thrown out. I do not know to this day if he wept at his guilt or at the spun-out allegation. I do not know if he put up a show for me. I do not know how my rage lessened at the sight of his contrite, shamefaced demeanor. Before I went to him I’d thought, man to man, he wouldn’t lie to me. Then we became just that, man and man, men who reflect each other.

Other things to note:

On the last night Okwui performed Bronx Gothic at St. Peter’s, a receptionist from the church brought her a picture, thinking it showed her in confirmation class, with her brother. But the picture was so blurry she couldn’t tell.

Okwui has an experience of the Biafra War. This assertion would be incorrect if experience is void of history, if she were excused from Biafra given the date of her birth. But her proximity to the War—she was born two years after it ended, to parents who fled Nigeria during—concerns her in the way an opera star inhabits her role. Experience as secondhand, as inhabited in the second place. It is a version of the Biafra War yet to be fully considered: Biafra in the diaspora, only realizable there.

All the women who took part in the Women’s War of 1929, in the southeast of Nigeria, are alive still. They take up space in Okwui’s research, in her sense of being Igbo. She read of how they went into the home area of a particular person in power, singing and dancing, performing protest. They insulted the men, or bared their naked bodies. The men were shamed and scandalized. But the practice is not merely scatological, for her. It is how the body enacts belief, especially in public, especially when it performs.

See as many videos of Okwui performing as possible.

Memory is communal but it is being transmuted into self. ︎

February 2019

Photograph of Okwui Okpokwasili by Ian Douglas.
(c) Danspace Project, 2012.

A Sum of Encounters is a year-long blog by Emmanuel Iduma featuring intimate portraits of Nigerian artists based in Nigeria or the United States. With support from the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.