Nora Chipaumire’s dance-theater piece Miriam is dense in many ways: its near-tactile darkness, its matrix of wild images, its avalanche of ideas and – not least – its sheer intensity.
Chipaumire’s hallucinatory meditation on the famed South African singer Miriam Makeba, which packed Miami Light Project’s Wynwood venue the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse on Saturday night, sometimes verged on overwhelming. But even when Miriam seemed chaotic, it was an extraordinarily rich and enveloping theatrical experience. (It was co-presented by Miami Dade College’s MDC Live Arts.)
The sensory vertigo is deliberate. Chipaumire, who is from Zimbabwe, aims to challenge how we see many things outside the central figures and narratives of Western culture: black women, iconic figures like Makeba, femininity, Africa and Africans. As a program note explains, she wants us to feel alienated as a way of understanding the sense of being an (often exotic) outsider she has felt as an African immigrant and which she imagines Makeba enduring in decades of exile.
That much of Miriam happens in darkness could be a mocking metaphor for the "dark continent," but it also leaves the audience – seated on three sides of the performance space — feeling uncertain and wary, peering into the gloom for what comes next.
We hear Okwui Okpokwasili, stomping and breathing, before we see her, the flashing white light on her forehead blinding and illuminating by turns, revealing Chipaumire as she emerges from under a pile of rocks and black plastic. Oliver Clausse’ brilliantly designed lighting disorients as much as it illuminates: lamps swing dizzily overhead, bright lights shine in our eyes, and the faint glow from a plastic jug hanging above barely outlines Chipaumire’s muscular back, a shimmering curve in a velvety darkness. The paradoxical effect is to heighten the sense of depth onstage more than if it were well-lit.
Lean and towering in platform boots, with Naoko Nagata and Malika Mihoubi’s raggedy, voluminous dress and a white hoop on her shoulders like a cross between wings and a halo, Okpokwasili seems a post-apocalyptic angel (invoking another of Miriam’s inspirations, the Virgin Mary), a distorted doppelganger to the powerfully sculpted Chipaumire. Much of Miriam seems a kind of blind journey through an uncertain, purgatorial landscape, as the two women stalk and circle each other, sometimes teetering precariously, through Clausse’ set of piled rocks and crime-scene tape. Omar Sosa’s vivid score, from grinding, chaotic noise to urgent percussion, intensifies the disorientation.
Okpokwasili barks orders through a bullhorn at Chipaumire — "Mandatory quarter turn! Primitive squat!" — interspersed with panting innuendo: "Oh yesssss, that’s good." She recites text from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describing a stereotypical African woman, "wild and gorgeous apparition … savage and superb" until Chipaumire screams back: "It was my shore! You were the apparition!"
They confront each other through a Mylar mirror, ripping it apart and destroying their image. There’s a moment, as Chipaumire stalks the stage in a sinuous, deliberate dance of beautifully snaking limbs and back, when she seems powerful, at home with herself. But when she dons platform heels and a white dress that’s half ludicrous high-fashion, half parody primitive, tottering and laughing hysterically, she seems uncertain again.
Toward the end, Chipaumire gathers the pile of plastic from which she emerged at the beginning and whirls, a dark, ominously spinning spirit, barely visible, while Okpokwasili shrieks and laughs. Miriam ends as it began, in darkness, with the sound of the two women cackling and hooting, fading out as they exit, leaving us wondering: Where is Makeba? Who are they? And who, finally, has the last laugh?