Choreographer and dancer Nora Chipaumire is not afraid to be direct. Her weekend performance at the Miami Light Project of“Portrait of Myself as My Father” asked tough questions about masculinity, the black body, African history and family ties. All with a sense of humor so sharp and dark it sometimes verged on horrifying.
In “Portrait” she asks, “how do you become a black man?”
Chipaumire lives and works in Brooklyn, but she comes from Zimbabwe. Her father left her family when she was five, at a time when the country’s colonial regime was bearing down on traditional African ways. “Portrait,” co-presented by Miami Light and MDC Live Arts, imagines the kind of person he might have been.
As people filed in, she greeted them from alongside the boxing ring that filled the stage, joking and gesturing aggressively. Her masculine character was dressed in double football shoulder pads, goggles and Senegalese medicine belts. The bright lights on the floor were pointed at the audience. We were set up from the beginning as her co-conspirators, or her targets. The lights were then turned toward the stage and we were pulled full-speed into an absurd and confrontational world.
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From a platform at the corner of the boxing ring, Chipaumire spoke in broken texts and loaded jokes. “Ladies and gentlemen of reason,” she groaned into the microphone, “we are here to liberate the African from the African.”
“This is a manifesto.”
The box she stood on referenced slavery auction blocks, and her words were full of pointed references. The soundtrack was loud African popular music, hip hop and distorted noise. Chipaumire moved with a combination of bravado, African dance and boxing footwork, at one point shouting “King Black, yo black, chocolate black, gimme the black bass.”
She was joined by outstanding performers Shamar Watt and Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye. They were not opponents, more like three aspects of Chipaumire’s father. Inside the ring, Chipaumire and Ndiaye were physically tied to each other with long elastic bands, suggesting their characters were inseparable. Ndiaye had thick dreadlocks and a tribal appearance - but he also sported dark mirrored sunglasses and a painful looking spiked black leather g-string. His stage presence was comically sexual. But it was also visceral, animalistic and threatening—an embodiment of physical aggression, or a stereotype of the African man so offensive that one dare not put it into words.
Dressed in red track pants and black coat tails, Watt moved around the stage like a sideline coach, sometimes crossing into the center of the ring and orchestrating the action, shouting "Champion" at Chipaumire and Ndiaye.
In movement and words, the three performers played with ideas of male posturing, Africanism, selfies, sexuality and oppression.
“How does one become a black man?" Chipaumire demands. "Step one: learn to swag.”
Towards the end, Chipaumire asks, “Nigga, is you tired of runnin’? You better know how to fight…. You better know how to die.”
“Portrait” is about her father, and the black African man. But it’s also a portrait of a woman: Chipaumire herself. In the closing of the show, with Ndiaye on her back, she proclaims, “I carry the carcass of my father.”
No doubt, the show’s powerful images struck people of different races and nationalities differently. And the performers never let the audience slip into a feeling of being safely unseen. It was impossible to watch this piece without being aware of one’s own identity and position. But Chipaumire allows us to laugh with her while she fixes our attention on ugly aspects of history and human behavior.
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